The risk of hypothermia in dogs

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When thinking about dogs in vehicles, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the risk of them overheating. But the other side of the coin can be problematic, too. Dogs can get hypothermia when their body temperature drops even one degree below normal levels — and it can be fatal in some cases. Because of this, pet owners need to think about keeping their four-legged family members warm when the circumstances warrant it.

This may seem like less of a concern during the traditionally warmer months, but recent weather phenomena have shown us that unexpected temperatures can come at any time. That puts the onus on dog owners to be prepared to shelter their pets from dropping temperatures at essentially any time of year.

There are primarily two situations in which a dog is most likely to contract hypothermia: in a vehicle or outdoors. If you let your dog roam outside, or you leave them in the car while running errands, you should know the risks your pet faces and how to identify the signs of hypothermia.

To start, consider the risk of hypothermia in dogs when they are left in a car.

Hypothermia risk in the car

Most dog owners know that leaving their dog in the car during the summer months is a bad idea, given the imminent risk of overheating. But it is less common to think about the risk of leaving dogs in a vehicle when the weather cools.

While a car will not get cold as quickly as it can become hot, cars have minimal insulation. That means that it will provide shelter from wind and falling snow or rain, it can only do so much to maintain a warm interior.

In fact, the American Kennel Club specifically calls out the risk for hypothermia when dogs are left alone in a car for too long. And the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that “cars can act as refrigerators that hold in the cold and cause animals to freeze to death.”

Fortunately, you have options beyond leaving your dog to wait in the car. Here are a few alternative solutions:

  1. Ask if pets are allowed inside. Many stores, particularly locally owned businesses and stores that carry pet products, will allow you to bring your canine into the store with you. Check the window for a sign indicating pet-friendliness or that no dogs are allowed. If no sign exists, simply ask an employee.
  2. Bring a passenger. This way, your dog will have someone to keep them company — and to monitor the interior temperature of the car. Leave your keys with them so they can turn on the heat if it gets too chilly in the vehicle.
  3. Look for “pet pods.” These individually sized, lockable kennels regulate temperature and provide a comfortable space for your pet to relax while you shop. They are usually located in front of the store, where available. While they are not commonplace yet, companies are working to make them more widespread.
  4. Choose “curbside delivery.” If the store offers the option, consider ordering online ahead of time and choosing curbside delivery. This way, you can stay in the car with your dog and still get all of the items you need.
  5. Choose “pickup.” Not all businesses offer curbside delivery. If the place you are shopping lacks this choice, see if they have a pickup option. Heading in to pick up your prepared order will be significantly faster than shopping for the items yourself, saving your dog from a long wait in the car.
  6. Shorten your list. If you have your dog with you and need something from a store where none of the above are options, hone your list down to items you can grab in just a few minutes by omitting any non-essentials that can wait till another time to prioritize your pet’s health and safety.
  7. Leave them at home. When possible, it may be best to leave your dog at home; by doing so, you protect them by leaving them in a temperature-controlled space rather than in the potentially freezing car.

Hypothermia risk outside

Many people assume that a dog’s fur will keep them warm while outside in colder temperatures. While that certainly helps, it is not a safeguard against all cold exposure. Dogs will be affected by cold differently depending on their size, breed and age, but experts generally advise that if the temperature is below 45F, your dog might get too cold. At 32F, dogs with thin coats, small dogs and older dogs are at risk of hypothermia. At 20F or below, all animals are at risk.

The ASPCA put it in context, saying; “Remember, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your pet… Younger dogs, older dogs, and those with thinner coats are more prone to hypothermia and should be monitored even more closely for signs of hypothermia.”

To help you reduce the risk of hypothermia in your dog when outdoor temperatures drop, consider using these tips.

  1. Be mindful of breed. Generally, if you have a small dog, one with minimal fur or an older dog, they will not be able to tolerate the cold well. But Northern breeds — like huskies, samoyeds and malamutes — are all genetically more adapted to colder temperatures. Research your dog’s breed to understand what is safe for them, then monitor while they are outdoors to ensure they show no signs of hypothermia.
  2. Keep an eye on the clock. Veterinarians say that dogs can be outdoors in cold temperatures for about 15 to 20 minutes without too much risk. That should give them ample time to use the bathroom and get a quick exercise break.
  3. Get them dog booties. Check your dog’s paws after being outside in the cold. If their paws seem irritated or if they show behavior that indicates walking on the cold ground is uncomfortable, a set of dog booties may help to protect them. Make sure they are securely fastened to prevent the dog from shaking them off.
  4. And maybe a jacket. If your dog has a thick coat, they may not need an extra layer in the cold. Watch them when they go outside; if you notice your dog shivering or you have a particularly frail or aged dog, a jacket or dog sweater can go a long way toward keeping them comfortable.
  5. Consider putting pee pads inside. You would probably prefer that your dog relieves themself outdoors, but for high-risk dogs, this may be too much in cold weather. Older, thin and very small or young dogs may benefit from having the option to use the bathroom indoors.
  6. Get a heated dog house. Some dogs love being outside, regardless of the weather conditions. If you have an outdoors-loving canine, installing a heated dog house can give them the best of both worlds. However, make sure that your dog always has an option to get back into the house if they need to warm up.
  7. Learn the warning signs of hypothermia. As a dog owner, the responsibility falls to you to make sure your dog’s body temperature does not drop below safe levels. Educate yourself on the warning signs of hypothermia (a few included below) so you can monitor your pet through the colder months.

Signs of hypothermia in dogs

Given the risks of hypothermia, it can help to know what the condition looks like. Here are the key signs of hypothermia in dogs, what to do if you observe them and what you can do to help keep them safe until you can get to your vet.

  1. Paleness. Color loss is a key indicator of hypothermia in dogs. Check their gums and their skin for paleness.
  2. Shivering. Just like us, dogs will shiver when cold as their body attempts to warm itself back up.
  3. Lethargy. Most dogs will act tired and listless when affected by hypothermia. They may also curl up in an attempt to hold onto whatever body heat they have left.
  4. Shallow breathing. If your dog’s breathing has slowed, their heart rate has probably slowed, too.
  5. Coordination loss. Some dogs will stumble around or act disoriented when they have hypothermia.

The ASPCA also indicated that whining, as well as cool tails, feet and ears were additional warning signs of hypothermia.

Beyond these symptoms, your dog could also contract frostbite, or damage to their skin and other tissue, due to prolonged cold exposure. Booties and a jacket can help mitigate risk of frostbite.

Your dog’s internal temperature can also indicate their risk for frostbite. This chart may help you know when to check your dog for the signs of frostbite:

When does frostbite kick in for dogs?

Severity Internal Temperature
Mild 90-99 degrees fahrenheit
Moderate 82-90 degrees fahrenheit
Severe < 82 degrees fahrenheit

How to manage hypothermia symptoms

If you notice any of the above symptoms, get your dog to your veterinarian or an emergency vet as soon as you possibly can. However, you do not have to wait to start taking action to protect your pet. While your vet will be able to do more, you can take steps right away to help your dog:

  1. Warm them on the go. If you are out and about with your dog when you notice the signs of hypothermia, act quickly to try to warm them. Wrap them in a jacket, hold them close to your body and, if you are near your car, turn it on and crank up the heat. If your pet is wet, use what you have on hand to get them as dry as soon as possible.
  2. Warming steps at home. At home, you can be even more proactive about helping your pet warm back up. Layer on blankets; if you have a fire or space heater, sit with your pet near it so they can warm faster. You can also place heated water bottles around them. Experts recommend avoiding heating pads, however, since they can burn your dog’s skin.
  3. Check their skin. If your dog has hypothermia, there is a possibility they could also have frostbite. Look for any areas where their skin seems irritated or tender. If you notice any, make a note so you can have the vet evaluate them.
  4. Give them warm fluids. A little warm (not hot) broth can help to bring their internal temperature back up.
  5. Call an emergency vet, if necessary. The longer your dog’s body temperature stays low, the greater the risk to their health. If your usual vet cannot see you within an hour or two of the hypothermia incident, start calling emergency vets to see who can get your pet in soonest.

Resources

The best way to keep your dog safe is to research and learn what risks might be a factor and how to address levels of exposure to things like hypothermia. This can help prepare for the unexpected, particularly since unusual weather incidents are not uncommon. When snowstorms swept through Texas in February 2021, for example, many people were understandably unprepared.

These additional resources can give you extra insight into precautions or variables that might come into play in the event of a hypothermia emergency:

  • A VCA Animal Hospitals guide to internal temperatures in pets to teach you about how to take your pet’s temperature — including what kind of thermometer to use — to help you monitor for hypothermia and frostbite.
  • A dog bootie guide to help you find properly fitting, amply protective footwear for your pooch.
  • A look at state laws so you can know if someone can legally break a car window to protect a dog in your home state. This can help you know how to respond if you see a dog in a vehicle on a concerningly hot or cold day, as well as help you handle a situation should a well-meaning passerby smash in your own window when you were popping into a store to quickly grab something.
  • A list of the best car insurance providers so you can get comprehensive coverage to pay for a window breakage incident should someone else do so to rescue your dog.
  • Financial tips for raising a pet.
  • A Humane Society list of resources to help if you are having trouble affording your vet bills, pet food and more. It also links to resources by state and dog breed so you can find the best channel for the support you need.
  • An overview of reasons why pets tremble to help you determine if your pet is shaking because of the cold or for another reason.