Hypothermia in Dogs: Understanding the Risks

As the cold weather sets in, we make sure to wrap up warm when we take our dogs out for their walks. But what about our furry friends? How do we know if they’re getting too cold? Can dogs get hypothermia – and what exactly does that mean? In this article, we’ll talk about the important topic of hypothermia in dogs: what it is, how it happens, the symptoms of hypothermia in dogs that you need to know, and what to do if you think your dog’s getting hypothermic.
Dr. Kathryn Dench - Qualified Veterinarian Surgeon with over ten years of experience in small animal medicine.
October 4, 2022
min read

What is Hypothermia in Dogs?

Hypothermia in dogs means that the dogs’ internal body temperature has fallen below normal. The body works hard to maintain its temperature within the normal range, so hypothermia indicates that the body is losing heat at a higher rate than it can produce it. Hypothermia can be mild, moderate, or severe, and can be fatal if left untreated.

Can Dogs Get Hypothermia? 

Dogs can get hypothermia when exposed to prolonged cold temperatures. All dogs are at risk but puppies, seniors, small breeds, short-furred, and ill dogs are the most susceptible. 

How Do Dogs Get Hypothermia?

There are two broad ways that a dog can get hypothermia: either their body isn’t producing and circulating heat properly, such as with hypothyroidism or blood loss; or they are losing heat too fast, which happens when they are exposed to the cold for too long.

Some of the most common reasons for a dog to get hypothermia include:

  • Being left outside accidentally at night – It is often colder during the night than in the daytime. A dog left outside at night may become hypothermic due to the long hours in the cold.
  • Negligence – Dogs that are underweight or kept outside without proper shelter are at high risk of developing hypothermia in cold weather.
  • Having a wet coat – When a dog’s fur is wet, it stops insulating the body and allows heat to escape. Letting your dog swim for long sessions or keeping your dog out in windy weather to dry after bathing can lead to hypothermia.
  • Escaping and running away – A runaway dog may become hypothermic due to lack of a warm shelter to protect it from the cold.
  • Long walks in cold weather – Walking in exposed terrain in bad weather can lead to hypothermia in dogs, just as it can in people.

Dog Hypothermia Symptoms 

Symptoms of hypothermia in dogs can start mildly, making it difficult to detect. Your dog’s body can lose its ability to warm up again after long exposure to freezing temperatures and succumb to the condition. Watch for the following signs:

  • Shivering – Shivering is one of the first symptoms of hypothermia in dogs. A dog with a low temperature will begin to shiver as its body tries to generate heat through thermoregulation. With progressive cold, muscles lose the ability to shiver, and the brain fails to send shivering signals. 
  • Muscle stiffness – When your dog loses too much heat, its muscles contract, leading to tightness across the body.
  • Lethargy – With the reduction of oxygen in the bloodstream, a hypothermic dog will become lethargic and stop all attempts to find warmth. 
  • Difficulty walking – A hypothermic dog will reduce its movements, but when muscles begin stiffening, walking becomes difficult or impossible.
  • Pale gums – The body will try to conserve heat by reducing blood circulation to the surface. This leads to pale and cold gums.
  • Cool body surfaces – An affected dog’s body shunts blood to vital internal organs, causing the extremities, including ears, paws, feet, and tail, to get low blood flow and feel cold.
  • Confusion – Your dog won’t be excited over anything, it won’t seem to understand what’s going on and may even fail to recognize you.

Long-term effects of hypothermia in dogs include shock, organ failure, and death. 

What Temperature Causes Hypothermia in Dogs? 

Dogs have a warmer average body temperature than humans, ranging between 100.5℉ to 102.5℉. When their internal temperature falls below 99℉, hypothermia begins setting in. It starts mildly and worsens with a continued drop in temperature.

  • Mild hypothermia – occurs at body temperature between 90-99℉

At this stage, a dog’s brain reacts with a physiological response that causes vasoconstriction and subsequent reduction of blood flow to the body’s extremities. Surfaces such as ears, legs, feet, and paws will feel cold to your touch.

  • Moderate hypothermia – occurs at body temperature between 82-90℉

Your dog’s body shivers to generate heat, until its muscles tense. The visible signs to observe at this level include shivering, sluggishness, muscle stiffness, difficulty walking, confusion, and pale gums.

  • Severe hypothermia – occurs when body temperature drops below 82℉

The muscle cells of a severely hypothermic dog will run out of energy, and shivering will stop. Breathing, metabolic and heart rates slow down. The dog becomes lethargic and unresponsive with continued reduction of oxygen in the bloodstream. Dogs in this stage require immediate treatment.

Some dogs, especially puppies, love romping around in the cold. However, environmental temperatures under 45℉ can be dangerous for any dog. Such temperatures can result in severe conditions requiring emergency, subsequent unplanned costs, or even fatalities. 

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How to Bring a Dog's Temperature Up

If you see signs of moderate to severe hypothermia in your dog, or if your dog is a puppy, senior, or has a medical condition, you need to take them to the vet clinic as an emergency. Wrap them in blankets and drive them to the nearest clinic.

If your dog is otherwise healthy but showing signs of mild hypothermia, you can take these steps to try and reverse it: 

  • Get your dog into a warm environment, such as a room or vehicle.
  • Ensure it is dry, or dry it with a towel.
  • Warm some blankets in a clothes dryer and wrap your dog in them.
  • Fill bottles with hot water and place them outside the blankets wrapping your dog (not in direct contact with your dog’s skin or fur).
  • Encourage your dog to drink warm fluids.

During hypothermia, a dog speeds up glucose metabolism to maintain stability. This can cause hypoglycemia, which causes lethargy and comas. A teaspoon of honey or sugar syrup can help replenish blood sugar levels. Avoid giving honey to puppies. 

Continue with the efforts until the shivering stops and the dog’s temperature on a rectal digital thermometer rise to 98℉. At this point, you can stop active heating, such as using hot water bottles, to prevent overheating. However, keep the blankets on to prevent any heat loss. If temperatures remain below 94℉, or there is no response after 30-45 min of warming, call your vet.

Prevention of Hypothermia in Dogs

In cold weather, it’s important to take active measures to prevent hypothermia in your dog. These include:

  • Keeping your dog indoors during freezing times of winter
  • Dressing it with a cold weather jacket and boots if you’re taking it for a walk
  • Keeping walks shorter in cold seasons.

Final Thoughts

Dog hypothermia is a serious condition caused by extended exposure to freezing temperatures. It can affect any dog, but puppies, seniors, and sick dogs are at greater risk when the weather is too cold for dogs.

Hypothermia is an emergency which requires immediate treatment. While mild hypothermia can be treated at home, you should be ready to take your dog to the emergency vet if their temperature doesn’t start to rise, or if you suspect they have moderate or severe hypothermia. As with most health conditions, prevention is key, so take steps to keep your dog happy and healthy this winter season.

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GoodPaw Pet Services Inc., GoodPaw, offers free advice, product information and other editorial resources that are intended for informative purposes only, and should not be used in place of proper veterinary care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat your pet. If your pet is experiencing any health concerns, contact a licensed veterinarian. GoodPaw assumes no responsibility for action taken based on information given from GoodPaw.com.

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