As the weather becomes colder, it is important to be aware of the dangers that this can pose to your pets. They too can be affected by low temperatures, and may develop hypothermia as a result. Hypothermia often happens in conjunction with frostbite, so it is beneficial to be aware of how to recognise both.


What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature. Pets can develop this if they get really cold and are unable to warm up. If it is not treated quickly, it can cause their body to shut down and prove fatal.

Who is at risk of hypothermia?

All pets are at risk of hypothermia if they become too cold. However, there are some factors which increase their chances of developing hypothermia:

- pets who are old

- pets who are very young

- pets who are small

- pets who are frail

Pets with thin coats feel the cold weather quicker than pets with thicker fur, but any pet can become seriously ill if the temperature of their body drops too low. Shivering is a way of the body trying to warm itself, but if this doesn’t work, the body temperature will continue to drop.

How does hypothermia occur?

If your pets are out in the cold for too long without any protection or shelter from the weather, they are likely to become extremely cold and therefore develop hypothermia.

Pets are also likely to develop hypothermia if they become very cold very quickly – for example, falling into freezing water.

Signs of hypothermia

With mild hypothermia, your pet is likely to be shivering and appear lethargic. As the hypothermia increases in severity, the other symptoms become evident.  Your pet will become increasingly unresponsive as their body goes into heat conservation mode. At this time, their focus will be on keeping their vital organs working by restricting the blood flow from all other parts of the body. If it’s not treated, hypothermia can be fatal.

- shivering: this is an early sign of shivering and one which pets use in an attempt to warm themselves up, but be aware that pets will stop shivering if their body temperature drops very low

- pale or grey gums

- stiff muscles

- fixed and dilated pupils

- low energy – appearing very sleepy, lethargic

- lack of co-ordination – stumbling, struggling to walk, bumping into things

- low heart rate and breathing rates

- collapse

- coma: this is where your pet will fall asleep but you will be unable to wake them

What to do if you think your pet has hypothermia

Hypothermia is an emergency situation and you should therefore phone your vet immediately if you think that your pet is showing signs. Your vet will then give you advice that is individual to your pet – it is important that you follow this advice closely and carefully in order to maximise your pet’s chance of survival.

- get your pet out of the cold: take them to somewhere that is sheltered and warm – warming them up too quickly can be a shock for their body so it is important that the area is warm, not very hot

- gently dry your pet with a towel (if they are wet)

- warm your pet up slowly so not to shock their body: you can do this by placing thick blankets underneath them and over them

- place hot water bottles (filled with warm water – not too hot) wrapped in towels near your pet’s body

- try to get your pet to drink some lukewarm water (not hot)

- take your pet to the vet to be checked over by a professional so that you can be 100% sure that they are okay

Protecting your pet from hypothermia

- make sure that your pet always has somewhere warm and dry to go if the weather gets cold, whether this be an outside kennel or lots of hay for rabbits to burrow into

- monitor your pets when they spend time outside in very cold weather – be prepared to bring them inside if it gets too cold

- you may want to consider keeping your pets (specifically cats) indoors during the colder months, just in case the temperatures drop suddenly

- try to keep dogs dry when you are walking them – avoid walking outside when it is raining heavily, and consider getting a coat or booties for your dog to wear when walking

- if possible, move small pets indoors or into a shed – cover hutches with blankets but ensure it can still be well-ventilated

- never leave pets in a cold vehicle


What is frostbite?

Frostbite is damage caused to the skin and other tissues as a result of prolonged exposure to extreme cold.

Who is at risk of frostbite?

Any pet who spends a prolonged period of time exposed to extremely cold weather has the potential to be affected by frostbite. However, there are some factors which may heighten the risk of your dog getting frostbite:

- medical conditions that affect blood flow

- wet fur

- short hair

- small in size

- illness

- old age

How does frostbite occur?

Prolonged contact to cold temperatures causes the body to close blood vessels that are near to the skin in order to preserve a stable core body temperature – blood vessels start to narrow or constrict. Sometimes, this protective mechanism can reduce blood flow to critically low levels in some areas of the body (particularly the extremities). The combination of cold temperatures and a reduced blood flow can allow the tissues to freeze, causing severe tissue injury.

Symptoms of frostbite

Symptoms of frostbite can take several days to appear so it is important to monitor your pet closely and act immediately if they start to display any of the symptoms.

Affected areas may have:

- pale discolouration

- pain when touched

- cold or brittle feeling when touched

- swelling

- skin ulcers or blisters

- skin that is blackened or dead

- skin that is red, inflamed and painful as it thaws

If the tissues are so severely damaged that they become necrotic, symptoms can include:

- skin that is dark blue/black

- dead skin that falls off after a period of several days to weeks

- puss forming

- foul smell

- secondary bacterial infection

What to do if you think your pet has frostbite

You should immediately contact your vet so that they can give the correct advice for your particular situation. Whilst waiting for veterinary help, there are some steps that you can take at home:

- move your dog into a dry, warm area

- wrap your dog in dry, warm blankets or towels

- place hot water bottles (filled with warm water – not too hot) wrapped in towels near your dog’s body

- carefully warm the affected areas with warm water – either soak the affected body part directly in the warm water, or use warm water compresses on the area

- once the area is warmed, carefully pat dry as thoroughly as possible

- try to prevent your dog from licking and/or scratching the affected areas

Protecting your pet from frostbite

- limit the amount of time that your pets are exposed to extremely cold temperatures

- consider using booties to protect your dog’s paws whilst out on walks, as well as a dog coat

- clean snow and ice from your dog’s paws as soon as you can – this will keep them from becoming too cold