By: Cate Burnette
With winter upon us, leaving your pet outside for any length of time creates the possibility of causing her to suffer from hypothermia – a systemic lowering of body temperature – or frostbite. An animal hurting from either of these conditions is in danger of dying and needs immediate care and veterinary treatment.
Just like the human body, your pet’s body reacts similarly when exposed to cold temperatures.
While you and I get “goosebumps” when we’re cold, your animal’s fur and hair will stand up in a physical response called “pilo-erection.” This allows warm air to become trapped near the skin providing an extra layer of insulation against the cold.
As your pet’s core temperature lowers, her skeletal muscles begin shivering in an involuntary movement designed to increase blood flow and generate warmth to her body. At this point, once your pet’s normal body temperature decreases from its normal of around 101ºF to less than 98ºF, hypothermia is a distinct risk.
When your dog or cat becomes cold enough that life is at risk, major blood vessels begin to constrict. In a natural, physiological reaction, your pet’s heart will start sending most of her warm blood to her vital organs – her brain, her liver, her kidneys, and her lungs – and restrict blood flow to her outer extremities – her limbs, ears, tail, and parts of her face. This condition is what we call “frostbite.”
Know Your Pets’ Cold Tolerance
Just like you, your pet’s ability to tolerate the cold depends on her general health, her type of hair coat, her activity level and her stores of body fat.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association website, elderly and arthritic pets may have more difficulty walking on snowy sidewalks and may be prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or double-coated animals may adjust more easily to colder weather, but are still at risk for illness and hypothermia. Short-haired pets with less protection and short-legged animals whose bellies are closer to icy ground can feel cold faster than their taller and furrier cousins. Additionally, those animals with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiac disease, hormonal imbalances (Cushing’s syndrome) and renal failure have a harder time regulating body temperatures than healthy pets, so may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. Very old and very young pets have the same issues.
You’ll want to watch for the signs of your pet’s inability to handle the cold and see your vet as soon as possible should you notice the following symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Hypothermia
Symptoms of hypothermia include the well-known signs of shivering and muscle stiffness. You should also watch for weakness, depression, and lethargy leading to a kind of stupor. Your animal’s heart and respiratory rates may become lower than normal, she may have breathing difficulties, and, as hypothermia progresses, she may become comatose with fixed, dilated pupils.
Once your pet becomes cold enough where frostbite is an issue, watch for discoloration on the toes, ears, and tail, with inflammation and pain being present. The affected areas can be a bright red color, then progress to pale pink, and finally a black color as the cells and tissues die. You may see blisters and skin ulcers and notice the skin beginning to slough.
Immediate first aid is necessary if you suspect your dog or cat is suffering either hypothermia or frostbite.
1. First, wrap your pet in warm blankets. If you want to use a heating pad, put the pad on medium heat, and keep blankets between the pad and your animal’s skin. A heating pad on bare skin will burn a hypothermic pet that is weak and unable to move. You can also wrap towels around bottles filled with warm water and place them around your pet. NEVER dip a hypothermic animal into a warm bath as this can cause the body temperature to dip even lower. Monitor your pet’s temperature every 10 to 15 minutes using a rectal thermometer.
2. For areas of frostbite, you can warm the affected area rapidly using warm, wet towels. If your cat or dog has a frozen paw or limb, soak only that limb in a bath or bowl of warm water. After the area is warmed, dry it very gently with a clean, warm towel and wrap it loosely in clean gauze or a dry towel. DO NOT rub the frozen tissue as this can cause it to slough.
3. Get your pet to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Frostbitten tissue becomes gangrenous very quickly and can result in secondary infections. Hypothermia can cause kidney and bladder problems that are extremely difficult to correct.
Prevention of Hypothermia
The easiest way to prevent your pet becoming hypothermic or frostbitten is to keep her inside during cold weather. Remember, if it’s too cold outside for you with a coat, hat, and boots, its too cold for your animal with just her fur and bare paws.
Once inside your home, your animals may change their location based on their need for more or less warmth. Many pets prefer comfortable sleeping places and pet parents can easily give their animals some safe options to allow them to vary sleeping places to adjust to individual needs.
Whether or not your neighbor is committing animal cruelty punishable by law by leaving a pet to suffer out in the cold is entirely dependent on the state where you live. Every state has an animal anti-cruelty statute, however at this time, there is no overreaching federal anti-cruelty law. The individual state laws penalize pet owners who (1) commit intentional acts of cruelty or (2) have a failure to act to provide food, water, necessary shelter, or, in some states only, reasonable veterinary care. Intentional acts are those acts of cruelty where the owner “knowingly tries to hurt an animal by repeatedly striking an animal, burning an animal, or committing some other heinous act.”
Last summer, the states of Indiana and Illinois amended animal protection laws making it illegal for dog owners to expose their pets to extreme hot or cold weather. These laws, that went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year, state that owners whose pets are injured or die as a result of a violation of this act can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor that can result in a maximum $2,500 fine or as long as a year in jail.
Additionally, city ordinances in Indianapolis and surrounding suburbs dictate that owners are liable to punishment if they leave their dogs outside during the following conditions:
- Temperatures below 20ºF
- Temperatures above 90ºF
- During a wind chill advisory
- During a heat advisory
- During a tornado warning
In Ohio, a new law named House Bill 94, also known as the Animal Protection Initiative, would make it illegal to leave an animal tethered outside under certain circumstances. The bill says a person can’t leave a pet tethered outside for more than six hours in a day and for “no more than two consecutive hours without at least an hour between tethering.”
The bill would make this behavior illegal between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. It would also be illegal to leave an animal outside during a heat or cold advisory or a severe weather warning issued by the National Weather Service. Violating the law would be a misdemeanor offense.
At this time, there are no “bad weather” laws or ordinances in the state of Texas.
Other Concerns of Extreme Cold
There are additional ways to protect your pets during cold weather when you absolutely have to take them outside.
- Make noise by banging on the hood of your car to alert any outdoor or feral cats that may have taken refuge in a warm engine. Check underneath your car and honk your horn before starting the engine to encourage feline stowaways to abandon their roost under your hood.
- Check your pet’s feet for cracked or bleeding paws caused by cold and ice. Any sudden lameness can be the result of ice accumulation between your animal’s toes. You can reduce the chances of that happening by clipping the hair between the pads and toes. You can also use properly-fitted booties to protect the toes and keep the feet warm.
- Cover up your short-coated dog by having her wear a sweater or dog coat. Have a couple on hand so that if one coat gets wet, you can switch out for a dry one.
- Tag her collar and microchip your animal in case she gets lost. Many pets find themselves in desperate trouble in winter because snow and ice can hide recognizable scents that might normally help your pet find her way back home.
- Prevent poisoning by cleaning up any antifreeze spills quickly, as even small amounts of antifreeze can be deadly, sending your pet into shock and deadly kidney failure. Additionally, during walks, your dog’s feet, legs and belly may pick up deicers, antifreeze, or other chemicals that could be toxic. When you get back inside, wipe down (or wash) your pet’s feet, legs and belly to remove these chemicals and reduce the risk that your dog will be poisoned after she licks them off of her feet or fur. Consider using pet-safe deicers on your property to protect your pets and the others in your neighborhood.
- Avoid ice when walking your dog. Not only can your pet slip and hurt herself on slick sidewalks, but frozen ponds, lakes and other bodies of water could prove deadly if she breaks through the ice and goes into the cold water. Your life could also be in danger if you try to save her.
- Add nutrition to your animal’s diet to help her keep to a healthy weight throughout the winter. Watch your pet’s body condition and keep it in a healthy range, neither obese nor underweight. Animals that spend a lot of time outdoors for sport or hunting will require more calories in the winter to generate enough body heat to keep them warm. You may want to consult with your veterinarian regarding your pet’s nutritional needs to make sure you don’t under- or overfeed.
- Be prepared for severe winter weather, blizzards and power outages. Have enough food, water and medicine (including any prescription drugs) on hand to get through at least 5 days. Make sure to prepare an emergency first-aid kit for your pet as well as yourself.
The Humane Society of the US urges everyone to speak out if you see an animal left out in the cold. First, talk with the owner and, if they don’t respond well, document everything you see, including the date, time, exact location, and type of animal. If you can take pictures or video, it can help your case. Contact your local animal shelter, police department or sheriff’s office with your evidence and be prepared to follow up in a few days if the situation remains the same.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.