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Hypothermia In Pets

James R. Speiser, DVM, DABVP, CCRT
January 14, 2016

How are arctic animals able to sleep outside in frigid temperatures, and our pets can’t? Animals in the arctic adapt to the frigid temperatures by increasing their metabolism to “turn up their furnace,” by growing a very thick and unique hair coat that retains heat, and by altering blood flow to exposed tissue to prevent frostbite.

Most of our pets don’t have, and cannot accomplish these special adaptive mechanisms, which causes them to be much more at risk for injury due to excessive cold.

So what should one do if a pet gets outside during frigid temperatures, or in some way gets exposed to excessively low temperatures for too long? And how long is too long?

If a pet’s temperature is below 98 degrees Fahrenheit, if it is unconscious or very disoriented, then it has been too long! The time factor can vary from 30 minutes to several hours depending upon the size, breed, age and health of a pet, as well as the outside air temperature, wind chill factor and amount of shelter available. Milder degrees of hypothermia can simply be recognized with uncontrollable teeth chattering or shivering.

If a pet is exhibiting hypothermia, this is what you should do:
  1. Warm some blankets in the clothes dryer quickly and wrap the pet up in them. Multiple layers are better than a single layer.
  2. You may wrap a hot water bottle filled with warm (not scorching hot) water in a towel and insert it under the neck or near the abdomen within the blanket wrap. Do not place it directly on the skin as it will cause a thermal burn, no matter how “unhot” it seems to you!
  3. You can turn a hair dryer on low and blow along the pet in the blankets making sure not to point it at any exposed area of the body for over a second or two. If you’re not careful, you can cause a burn on the cold skin.
  4. Give warm fluids to drink.
  5. Check the pet’s temperature every 10 minutes and start removing the blankets and/or wrapped hot water bottles once the temperature reaches 100 degrees.
If the pet is unconscious or extremely disoriented, and their temperature is below 97 degrees, complete the steps above and call us (317.PET.E.911), or your nearest emergency vet as soon as possible. Hypothermia is just as big of an emergency as heat stroke, and needs to be dealt with quickly for a good outcome!

Keep in mind that by law, in Marion County you cannot leave animals unattended outside with temperatures at or below 20 degrees, or when a wind chill warning has been issued by local, state or national authority. The ordinance can be found here. To report cases of neglect in Marion County, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 317.327.4622.
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