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Hypothermia in Dogs

Dog leaning on a railing in the cold
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  • There are two potential causes of hypothermia in dogs: environmental factors and internal factors.
  • Signs of hypothermia in dogs can vary depending on the duration and severity of the hypothermia.
  • If you suspect that your dog may have hypothermia, seek veterinary care immediately.
  • When outdoor temperatures fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, consider your dog's cold tolerance.

When the weather turns cold, we put on a coat, gloves and a hat to stay warm and prevent hypothermia. But what about our dogs? While some dogs will gladly wear clothing, coats aren’t a practical solution for every dog and they often do not provide nearly as much coverage as our cold-weather gear. Therefore, it’s essential to be aware of the risks that cold weather may pose for your pet so you can reduce your dog’s risk of hypothermia and act quickly if it begins to develop.

Can Dogs Get Hypothermia? 

Dog head tilted in the snow

Yes, hypothermia can occur in dogs. An average dog’s body temperature is between 99.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia, the presence of an abnormally low dog body temperature, is generally below 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hypothermia can occur in any dog; however, it is more common in very small dogs, very young or old dogs and dogs with underlying health issues. These factors can interfere with a dog’s ability to regulate its temperature normally. 

Causes of Hypothermia in Dogs

Little puppy in the snow feeling cold

There are two potential causes of hypothermia in dogs: environmental factors and internal factors. 

When you think about hypothermia, you probably think of dogs subjected to cold temperatures. Hypothermia can occur in any dog subjected to frigid temperatures or even moderately cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time. Every dog’s cold tolerance is different, depending on their genetic makeup (breed) and the environment to which they are acclimated. 

In general, when temperatures fall below approximately 45 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia poses a risk. However, small breeds, puppies, senior dogs or dogs with significant illness may become hypothermic even at temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Dogs left outside in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, especially in the presence of wind or rain, are at increased risk of developing hypothermia. As temperatures fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of hypothermia and dog frostbite increase significantly. 

Hypothermia can also occur when the dog’s internal regulatory systems fail to maintain an adequate body temperature. This type of hypothermia can happen even in a warm external environment. Dogs undergoing anesthesia and surgery can experience a brief period of anesthesia-related hypothermia. They are monitored by their veterinary team, which can use active warming methods to prevent hypothermia. 

Hypothermia can also occur in any dog experiencing significant shock or illness.

Symptoms of Hypothermia in Dogs

Dog shivering in the cold

Signs of hypothermia in dogs can vary depending on the duration and severity of the hypothermia. Dogs will often look cold in the early stages of mild to moderate hypothermia. They may shiver, be stiff when moving around, feel cold to the touch and act lethargic or confused. If this hypothermia is not addressed promptly, they may develop severe hypothermia. These dogs no longer shiver; instead, they will collapse and be minimally responsive to stimulation. 

Signs of mild hypothermia: 

  • Shivering 
  • Ears and limbs may feel cool to the touch

Signs of moderate hypothermia: 

  • Shivering
  • Stiff movements
  • Lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Pale gums

Signs of severe hypothermia: 

  • Shivering stops
  • Collapse
  • Unresponsive or minimally responsive
  • Fixed, dilated pupils
  • Pale gums

Treatment for Dog Hypothermia

Dog being brought to the vet in the car

If you suspect that your dog may have hypothermia, seek veterinary care immediately. 

In most cases, head straight to the nearest veterinary practice without dedicating any significant time to trying to warm up your dog. You can cause considerable harm by rewarming a hypothermic dog too quickly. Assuming you have a relatively short drive to a veterinary hospital, get your dog in the car, turn on the heat and drive to the veterinary hospital.

If you live a very long distance from a veterinary hospital, contact your veterinarian for instructions. Your veterinarian may encourage you to wrap your dog in warm, dry blankets before transport and place warm water bottles within this blanket cocoon to help raise your dog’s body temperature. Do not place water bottles directly against your dog’s skin because this could result in burns. 

Once you arrive at the veterinary hospital, your veterinarian can diagnose hypothermia by taking your dog’s temperature using a dog thermometer. While any temperature below 98 degrees Fahrenheit indicates hypothermia, affected dogs may have a temperature below 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The veterinary team will work to warm up your dog gradually. Simply bringing the dog indoors and using warm blankets may be sufficient in mild cases. Severe cases may require more proactive interventions, such as circulating water blankets, forced air warmers and warm intravenous fluids. 

Even after your dog has been rewarmed, they may still be at risk of cardiovascular effects, neurologic effects and organ abnormalities that can occur as a result of hypothermia. Your veterinarian may recommend hospitalizing your dog for monitoring and treatment, especially if your dog’s body temperature is very low upon arrival to the veterinary hospital.

The cost of treating hypothermia can vary significantly. A mild case of hypothermia may be treated for little more than the cost of an office visit if your dog is rewarmed easily and your veterinarian does not suspect any harmful effects. If your dog is significantly hypothermic and experiences severe effects of hypothermia, however, your dog’s care could cost several thousand dollars. 

How to Prevent Hypothermia in Dogs

Dog playing with a puzzle toy

When outdoor temperatures fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, consider your dog’s cold tolerance before going outdoors. Do not leave your dog unattended outdoors in cold temperatures and avoid letting your dog swim in freezing weather. Consider shorter walks in cold temperatures, especially if your dog is very young or old, a small breed, or is dealing with underlying health issues. Know how to tell if your dog is cold by looking for early warning signs such as shivering and ears or limbs that are cool to the touch. 

If your dog loves cold temperatures and has the right genetic factors, you may find they can tolerate longer periods outdoors in the cold. Acclimate your dog to cold temperatures gradually by taking slightly longer walks each day. Even if you own a Husky or another northern breed, don’t assume that you can safely go from spending days curled up by the fire to an all-day outdoor excursion in the snow. Just like us, dogs benefit from gradual acclimation to colder temperatures. 

As a dog owner, you are responsible for keeping your dog safe. Before going outdoors with your dog, look at the current temperature and consider the day’s weather forecast. Temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit are likely safe for your dog (unless you own a small puppy, senior dog or dog with serious medical conditions), but anything below that level warrants consideration. 

When the weather is cold, limit how much time your dog spends outdoors (consider spending more time indoors with puzzle toys to keep them active) and monitor your dog closely for signs of hypothermia.