Hypothermia In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

A fully wet tricolor border collie playing in the snow

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Hypothermia in dogs is an extreme lowering of the body temperature and happens when pets are exposed to frigid temperatures for too long, or if their fur gets wet in a cold, windy environment. When the body temperature drops, heart rate and breathing slow down, which can lead to several problems. The consequences of sustained, severe hypothermia may include neurological problems (including coma), heart problems, kidney failure, slow or no breathing, frostbite, and eventually death.

During a cold snap covering much of the United States a few years ago, a woman from suburban Chicago allegedly left her dog in his doghouse for 12 hours in temperatures that fell as low as minus 15 Fahrenheit. Sadly, the dog died from hypothermia. The woman was arrested and charged with animal cruelty after the police received a tip about the dog’s body being found.

A horrific story, no doubt, and one that shouldn’t have happened. If you see the signs of hypothermia in your dog, take steps to keep them warm and consult a veterinarian immediately for treatment. Here’s what you need to know about the symptoms, causes, and treatments for hypothermia (low body temperature) and how to prevent it from ever happening to your beloved furry friends.

Symptoms Of Hypothermia In Dogs

Black Labrador Retriever playing in the snow.

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Symptoms of hypothermia in dogs become more severe as the body reacts to a decrease in temperature and, eventually, shuts down. Although hypothermia is not commonly seen in her practice, Jenna Armstrong, DVM, at Ark Animal Hospital in Chalfont, Pa., says when it does happen, it tends to be because pet owners fail to recognize the early signs. It also happens when pets are mistakenly left outside overnight. If you notice the following signs of hypothermia in your dog, take steps to make sure they are kept warm and get to a veterinarian for treatment.

  • Strong shivering and trembling followed by no shivering
  • Acting sleepy or lethargic and weak
  • Fur and skin are cold to the touch
  • Body temperature is below 95 degrees (Fahrenheit)
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Pupils may be dilated (the black inner circle of the eye appears larger)
  • Gums and inner eyelids are pale or blue
  • Trouble walking
  • Trouble breathing
  • Stupor, unconsciousness, or coma

Causes Of Hypothermia In Dogs

Hairy Dog On Rocky Mountain

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Hypothermia in dogs is often caused by overexposure to frigid temperatures without a way to stay warm, but it can happen to dogs at normal temperatures, especially if they are very old or young or if they are under the influence of anesthesia. Dogs that suffer from diseases of the hypothalamus, including hypothyroidism, are also at risk. Here are some other potential causes of hypothermia in dogs.

  • Wet fur or skin
  • Being in cold water for a long period of time
  • Shock

Treatment For Hypothermia In Dogs

English bulldog lying under blanket on bed, close-up

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Treatment for hypothermia in dogs should begin immediately, as it can quickly become a life-threatening emergency. If you suspect your pet has hypothermia, take the following steps.

  • Remove your pet from the cold and put him in a warm room.
  • Dry off your pet thoroughly either with towels or a hair dryer set on low and held about 12 inches away.
  • Wrap your pet in a blanket (warm it in the clothes dryer first)
  • Wrap warm hot-water bottles in towels (to prevent burning your pet) and place on pet’s abdomen.
  • Heating pads can be used if your dog is dry, but supervise them so they don’t chew at the cords.
  • Allow your dog to drink warm fluids.
  • Check the pet’s temperature with a thermometer. If it’s below 95 degrees, the pet could be at risk for hypothermia. Take your pet to a veterinarian immediately.

If their temperature is above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, retake their temperature every 10 to 15 minutes to see how severe the hypothermia is while doing the warming techniques. Once their temperature is 100 degrees or higher, you can remove the hot-water bottle but be sure to keep them warm. Be sure to get them checked by a veterinarian the same day even when their temperature reaches 99 degrees or higher because one incidence of hypothermia can be harmful and make them prone to it again. If your pet doesn’t respond to warming up his body within 30 to 45 minutes, go to straight to emergency vet clinic.

Prevention Of Hypothermia In Dogs

Golden retriever wearing jacket and boots running towards the camera in snow, home front yard, houses and tree in the background.

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Hypothermia can be prevented by not allowing your dog outside for too long in very cold weather or near frigid water. Be aware of how well your pet tolerates the cold as very young, very old pets, small dogs as well as those with short hair can be most susceptible to hypothermia. If that’s the case, consider equipping your pup with dog sweater or jacket with booties to protect his feet for outings.

“Cooking spray can also be applied to their paws to prevent snowball accumulation and cold feet,” Dr. Armstrong says. There are several products like paw wax that can be used to protect a dog’s feet in winter for those that refuse to wear booties, as well.

Above all, use common sense. If it’s too cold for you to venture outside (even while bundled up), chances are the same goes for your dog.

Christine McLaughlin is DogTime.com’s Pet First Aid expert and a freelance writer, editor, and author.