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9 Surprising Causes of Hypothermia in Dogs

If you’re a dog owner, you know that keeping your furry friend warm and safe is a top priority. One condition to be especially aware of is hypothermia, a potentially life-threatening drop in body temperature.

All dogs, regardless of breed, can suffer from hypothermia if exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time. Some breeds, like Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes, may be more resistant to hypothermia due to their size, coat type, and overall health.

On the other hand, small breeds with short hair, such as Chihuahuas or Greyhounds, may be more prone to hypothermia due to their small size and lack of insulation.

In this article, we’ll explore the causes, symptoms, and ways to prevent and treat hypothermia in dogs.

WHAT IS HYPOTHERMIA

Hypothermia is a condition in which the body’s core temperature drops below the normal range of 36-37°C (96.8-98.6°F).

It can occur when the body is exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time, or when the body’s ability to generate heat is impaired.

The normal body temperature for dogs is generally considered to be between 38.3-39.2°C or 100.4-102.5°F.

It’s worth nothing that the method used to take a dog’s temperature can affect the results. For example, a rectal temperature may be slightly higher than an oral temperature, and temperatures taken by the ear may be slightly lower than temperatures taken rectally.

PRIMARY HYPOTHERMIA IN DOGS

Primary hypothermia refers to hypothermia that is caused by external factors, such as exposure to cold temperatures or wet conditions. This type of hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops due to the loss of heat to the environment.

In dogs, primary hypothermia can be caused by a variety of factors, such as being left outside in cold weather without adequate shelter, being wet and exposed to cold temperatures, or being in cold water for an extended period of time.

Primary hypothermia is generally more preventable than secondary hypothermia.

It can be avoided by providing proper shelter and protecting dogs from exposure to cold temperatures and wet conditions.

SECONDARY HYPOTHERMIA IN DOGS

Secondary hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature regulation is disrupted by an underlying issue, leading to a drop in body temperature.

In dogs, secondary hypothermia can be caused by a variety of factors, such as certain medications, illnesses, or surgeries that can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature.

Examples of conditions that can cause secondary hypothermia in dogs include:

  • Cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Anemia
  • Dehydration
  • Certain medications, such as sedatives or analgesics
  • General anesthesia

ACCIDENTAL HYPOTHERMIA IN DOGS

Accidental hypothermia is caused by an unexpected or unintentional event, such as falling into cold water or being left outside in cold weather without adequate shelter.

This type of hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops due to the loss of heat to the environment.

Taking common-sense precautions to protect your dog can prevent accidental hypothermia from occurring.

Small, short haired dog breeds are more vulnerable to hypothermia in cold weather image.

SYMPTOMS OF HYPOTHERMIA IN DOGS

When a dog’s body temperature drops, the body’s metabolic and physiological processes begin to slow down. This can lead to a number of clinical signs and complications, including:

Shivering

Dogs shiver when they are cold as a way to generate heat and warm their body. Shivering is a natural reflex that occurs when the body’s temperature drops, and it is triggered by the muscles contracting and releasing rapidly.

This movement helps to generate heat by increasing the body’s metabolic rate, and it can also help to warm the muscles and tissues.

In addition to shivering, dogs may also huddle together or curl up in a small, enclosed space to conserve heat when they are cold. They may also seek out warm surfaces or seek shelter in order to stay warm.

It’s important to keep in mind that shivering can also be a sign of other health issues, such as pain, fear, or anxiety.

Lethargy and Fatigue

Lethargy is a common symptom of hypothermia in dogs. It happens as a response to the body’s low temperature. When the body’s temperature drops, the metabolism slows down in order to conserve energy and heat.

In addition, hypothermia can cause decreased blood flow to the muscles and organs, which can result in decreased function and a lack of energy. The body’s immune system may also be compromised, leading to a general feeling of illness and fatigue.

Weakness and Muscle Stiffness

A dog’s muscles can become stiff and weak if the body temperature drops too low. The muscle stiffness makes walking difficult and causes a loss of coordination and balance.

Confusion or Disorientation

Hypothermia can cause decreased blood flow to the brain, which can result in confusion and disorientation.

The body’s immune system may also be compromised, leading to a general feeling of illness and a lack of coordination.

Cold and Pale Skin

Cold, pale skin is a common symptom of hypothermia in dogs. When the body’s temperature drops, the blood vessels constrict in an attempt to conserve heat. This can result in decreased blood flow to the skin and a loss of warmth and color.

In addition, hypothermia can cause decreased blood flow to the organs and tissues, which can result in a pale or grey appearance.

It’s important to note that cold and pale skin can also be a symptom of other health issues, such as anemia, dehydration, or certain medications.

Slow or Shallow Breathing

When the body’s temperature drops, the metabolism slows down in order to conserve energy and heat. This can lead to a decrease in respiratory rate, resulting in slow or shallow breathing.

Hypothermia can also cause decreased blood flow to the lungs and airways. This results in decreased oxygen exchange and difficulty breathing.

Weak Pulse

A weak pulse is a common symptom of hypothermia in dogs. When the body’s temperature drops, the blood vessels constrict in an attempt to conserve heat. The decrease in blood flow to organs and tissues can result in a weak pulse.

Complications of Hypothermia in Dogs

If left untreated, hypothermia in dogs can lead to serious complications, including:

Cardiac arrest

In the early stages of hypothermia, the heart rate may go up as the body tries to keep the blood flowing and keep the body warm. However, as the body’s temperature continues to drop, the heart rate may slow down, which is known as bradycardia.

If the body’s tissues and organs do not receive enough oxygen, they can become damaged, which can lead to organ failure and potentially life-threatening complications, including cardiac arrest.

Organ damage

Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and other organs. As mentioned above, decreased blood flow to organs and tissues can lead to permanent damage.

Frostbite:

Hypothermia can lead to frostbite, which is a condition in which the skin and underlying tissues freeze. Frostbite can cause serious damage to the affected areas and may lead to amputation if not treated promptly.

Signs of frostbite include:

  • Pale or grey skin
  • Cold or numb skin tissue
  • Loss of skin elasticity

It is important to protect your dog from cold temperatures, especially if they are small, thin-coated, or elderly. If you

Causes of Hypothermia in Dogs

There are several situations that can put a dog at risk of hypothermia, including:

Cold weather

Dogs are at risk of hypothermia in cold weather, especially if they are outside for an extended period of time or are not properly protected from the elements.

This is the most common cause of hypothermia in dogs.

Wet conditions

Dogs can also become hypothermic if they are exposed to wet conditions, such as rain or snow, for an extended period of time.

Swimming

Dogs can become hypothermic if they are in cold water for an extended period of time, as the body loses heat more quickly in water than in air.

Aging

Senior dogs are more prone to hypothermia due to their decreased ability to regulate body temperature.

Health conditions

Dogs with certain illnesses, such as cancer, kidney disease, or liver disease, may be more at risk of hypothermia due to a compromised immune system and decreased ability to regulate body temperature.

Anesthesia

Dogs that have recently undergone surgery or received general anesthesia may be more at risk of hypothermia due to the effects of the medication on the body’s temperature regulation.

Malnutrition

Dogs that are malnourished or have a low body weight may be more at risk of hypothermia due to a lack of body fat, which helps to insulate and regulate body temperature.

Medications

Certain medications, such as sedatives or analgesics, can affect the body’s ability to regulate body temperature and increase the risk of hypothermia.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

Hypothermia can cause the body’s metabolic processes to slow down, leading to a drop in blood sugar levels. This can be especially dangerous for small dogs or puppies, as their bodies are more prone to hypoglycemia

Secondary hypothermia in small dogs can be due to disease

Diagnosing Hypothermia in Dogs

If you believe your dog may be experiencing signs of hypothermia, get him or her to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Depending on specific circumstances and the severity of clinical signs, the following steps may be taken to make a diagnosis.

Physical examination

The veterinarian will perform a physical examination to assess the dog’s overall health and check for signs of hypothermia, such as a low body temperature, cold skin, and slow or shallow breathing.

Temperature measurement

The veterinarian will use a thermometer to measure the dog’s body temperature. A normal body temperature for a dog is between 100.5-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Blood tests

The veterinarian may order blood tests to check for underlying causes of hypothermia, such as anemia or dehydration.

Complete blood count

The CBC can help the veterinarian assess the dog’s overall health and determine if there are any underlying conditions that may be contributing to the hypothermia, such as anemia or infection.

X-rays

X-rays may be taken to check for underlying conditions that could be contributing to hypothermia, such as lung infections or heart problems.

Ultrasound

An ultrasound may be performed to check for any abnormalities in the dog’s internal organs.

Other diagnostic tests

Depending on the specific circumstances, the veterinarian may order other diagnostic tests, such as a CT scan or an MRI, to further evaluate the dog’s condition.

Treating Dogs with Hypothermia

If you have reason to believe your dog may be suffering from severe hypothermia, seek veterinary care as soon as possible.

If the cause of the hypothermia is known, the veterinarian will address that first.

For example, if the dog is hypothermic because it has been outside in cold weather, the veterinarian will need to warm the dog up and provide supportive care to help it recover.

Treatment for Mild to Moderate Hypothermia in Dogs

The dog should be placed in a warm room and wrapped in a warm blanket. Warm blankets can help to retain body heat and warm it up more quickly.

Placing warm water bottles or heating pads near the dog’s body can help to increase its body temperature. It’s important that nothing is too hot as that will cause the body even more stress.

The veterinarian may then offer the dog warm liquids, such as broth or water, to help warm its body from the inside out.

The veterinarian will closely monitor the dog’s temperature and vital signs, such as its heart rate and respiration, to ensure that its body temperature is increasing and to identify any potential complications.

Treating Severe Hypothermia

If the cause of the hypothermia is unknown or the dog is severely hypothermic, the veterinarian may need to take more aggressive steps to treat the condition.

This could involve using warm intravenous fluids or a heating pad placed under the dog.

Prevention of Hypothermia in Dogs

To prevent hypothermia, make sure your dog has access to proper shelter. Keep them warm and dry, limit their exposure to cold temperatures, and monitor elderly or sick dogs closely.

There are several ways you can help keep your senior dog warm and comfortable:

  • Provide a warm, draft-free environment.
  • Use a coat or sweater on your dog when venturing out into the cold.
  • If your senior dog has thinning fur or is prone to getting cold, consider dressing them in a warm coat or sweater when they go outside in cold temperatures.
  • Make sure your senior dog has access to fresh, warm water to drink. This can help keep their body temperature regulated and prevent dehydration.
  • Keep your dog active to stay warm naturally.
  • Cold pavement or snow can be hard on your senior dog’s paws. Consider using booties or paw balm to protect their feet and keep them warm.
  • Pay attention to your dog’s behavior and look for any signs that they may be getting too cold. If they seem sluggish or uncomfortable, bring them inside or provide them with additional warmth.

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Summary

We tend to think of hypothermia happening only in frigid temperatures during the winter months. While that’s usually the case, there are circumstances that can leave dogs at higher risk in a variety of situations.

Hypothermia is a serious condition that can be easily prevented with proper care and attention to the needs of our canine companions. By being aware of the causes and symptoms, and taking steps to prevent and treat hypothermia, we can ensure the health and well-being of our dogs.

References

Hypothermia – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). Hypothermia – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-4557-0306-7.00148-3

D. (n.d.). Hypothermia – Injuries; Poisoning – Merck Manuals Professional Edition. Merck Manuals Professional Edition. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/cold-injury/hypothermia

Hypothermia in Dogs & Cats – Avoid Pupsicles and Catsicles! – CriticalCareDVM. (n.d.). Hypothermia in Dogs & Cats – Avoid Pupsicles and Catsicles! – CriticalCareDVM. Retrieved December 22, 2022, from https://criticalcaredvm.com/hypothermia-dogs-cats/?print=print

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