Hypothermia in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

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In many countries, the winter season often comes with freezing temperatures that are dangerous not just to humans but to dogs too. However, dogs are more affected by the cold because they’re smaller in size and have a higher average body temperature than us.

Hypothermia is one of the many conditions dogs are at a higher risk of developing during winter. It occurs when a dog’s body temperature drops below the normal range. The normal range here is 38.3-39.2°C (101-102.5°F) for dogs and 36.4-37.6°C (97.6-99.6° F) for humans.

Since this is a life-threatening condition, it’s important that you seek immediate veterinary care if you suspect that your dog is suffering from hypothermia. But most importantly, knowing how to protect your canine companion from the cold can go a long way in preventing hypothermia from occurring in the first place.

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a medical condition that occurs when a dog’s normal body temperature drops to extremely low levels. There are three categories of hypothermia affecting dogs – mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild hypothermia occurs when a dog’s body temperature drops to 32-35°C (90-99°F). Moderate hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to 28-32°C (82-90°F), while severe hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below 28°C (82°F).

Causes of hypothermia in dogs

The most common cause of hypothermia in dogs is prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. If your pup has spent a long time outside in the cold, especially if his skin or fur is wet, it’s recommended that you check for symptoms of hypothermia immediately and take him to the vet if necessary. The same applies when he has been submerged in icy water.

Other than exposure to cold, hypothermia can also occur due to shock caused by fright or traumatic incidents. Diseases affecting the hypothalamus like hypothyroidism are also known to cause this condition. Hypothalamus is the area of the brain that regulates and maintains body temperature, so any illness affecting it will also interfere with its normal functioning.

Other possible causes of hypothermia include prolonged exposure to anesthesia during surgery, hormonal imbalance, heart problems, kidney disease, as well as problems with blood flow.

Dog wearing a blue sweater

Which dogs are at a higher risk of getting hypothermia?

As you’ve seen above, all dogs exposed to cold for a long time can get hypothermia. However, some dogs are at increased risk of being affected. They include:

  • Small breed dogs
  • Newborn puppies
  • Short-haired dogs
  • Senior dogs
  • Dogs with underlying medical conditions
  • Dogs that spend most of their time indoors

These dogs will have a hard time keeping their body temperature within the normal range when they’re exposed to colder temperatures.

Signs of hypothermia in dogs

The initial symptoms you’re likely to notice when your dog has hypothermia are extreme shivering, lethargy, and frostbite on different parts of his body, especially on the ears, paws, and tail. Frostbitten areas may turn gray, pale, black, or blue, and become painful when touched.

As hypothermia increases in severity, your pet will increasingly become unresponsive as his body tries to conserve heat. Other symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Muscle stiffness
  • Paleness of skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Fixed, dilated pupils
  • Lack of coordination
  • Collapse
  • Coma

What to do if your dog has hypothermia

Before anything else, it’s important that you take your pet out of the cold environment and place him in a warm room. If he has spent time outdoors in freezing weather, he’ll most likely be cold and wet, so proceed by drying him off using a towel or a dryer. If you choose to use a dryer, make sure it’s set on low heat and is approximately 12 inches away.

A wet dog wrapped up in a blanket

Next, warm your pet’s blankets in the dryer and wrap him in them. To increase his body temperature even further, place one or two hot water bottles against his abdomen. Make sure you wrap the bottles properly in a towel to avoid burning his body. Also, consider giving him lots of warm fluids to drink if he’s conscious.

Since excessive body movements can lead to loss of body heat, ensure that your pet stays still as you try to raise his body temperature. It’s also important to measure his body temperature at least every 10 minutes to know how he’s responding to the re-warming techniques.

If the body temperature remains below 36.7°C (98°F) despite your efforts, that’s an urgent case that requires immediate medical attention. Get him to the vet’s clinic straight away for close observation and proper treatment.

But if the body temperature is gradually rising, continue with the re-warming until the temperature reads 37.8°C (100°F). After that, you can remove the hot water bottles, but keep him wrapped in warm blankets.

Keep a close eye on him while he recovers and regains his normal body temperature. Once he’s able to walk around and do other things normally, have him checked by the vet the same day for any long-term damage to his internal organs.

Preventing hypothermia in dogs

Since exposure to cold for extended periods is the number one cause of hypothermia in dogs, you must keep your pet warm during winter using blankets and protective clothing. There are different types of protective dog clothing you can buy, such as winter coats, booties, and jackets.

In addition to dressing in warm clothing, it’s also important to limit your dog’s movements outdoors during winter. Ensure he stays indoors, and if you have to take him for walks or potty breaks, make them very short to reduce the likelihood of hypothermia setting in.

Overall, dogs are at a higher risk of developing hypothermia during winter than at any time of the year. As a dog owner, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your pet stays indoors bundled up in warm clothing during this time to prevent hypothermia from occurring.

However, if he’s been exposed to cold and is showing symptoms of hypothermia, follow the steps above to raise his body temperature safely. Don’t hesitate to call your vet if there are no improvements to his condition despite your re-warming efforts.