Don't let winter nip at your pet

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

You've got on your hat, mittens and insulated boots and are all bundled up with layer upon layer of warm clothes. You're ready to go outdoors and face the bitter cold front that has just moved through.

But what about your canine companion? It lives out back and you've seen it curled up in a pile of fresh powder. Dogs have coats so they're fine in the cold weather, right?


Prolonged exposure to severe cold, such as last week's stretch of minus 30 degree weather, can be life threatening to pets.

They can become hypothermic, suffer frostbite or even succumb to the elements and die.

"Hypothermia sets in when the animal's body isn't able to regulate its temperature," said Jim Delker, a veterinarian at Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna.

As the animal's body temperature abnormally drops it will start to shiver uncontrollably, becoming weaker and weaker. They may become unresponsive, go into shock or even slip into a coma.

Another concern is frostbite.

"Frostbite occurs as a result of the pet's body being selective as to where it sends warm blood," Delker said. "The organs are the most important to keeping the animal alive, so the body diverts blood from the extremities to the core of the body to keep the organs warm."

This circulation shift can protect the brain, heart, lungs and other vital organs, but leaves the extremities unprotected. As a result, frostbite often occurs.

"Frostbite usually occurs on ears, tails, toes and the genitalia of male dogs," Delker said.

It can be tricky to identify frostbite but discoloration usually is a precursor.

"The skin of the affected area will appear pale or white at first," Delker said. "If the dog is brought in and circulation comes back it may become red and swollen. Then as the tissue dies off it will turn a dark or black color."

The affected skin may be beneath fur so it isn't always visible, but limping and droopy ears may be telltale signs frostbite is setting in.

Susceptibility to the cold can vary depending on a pet's size, age, health and the thickness of its fur, according to Delker.

"Short-haired dogs are of course more vulnerable," he said, but pointed out that even dogs like huskies can have trouble in extreme weather if they're house dogs that haven't had time to grow a winter coat.

Delker recommended that very young or very old dogs shouldn't be out in the elements for extended periods.

"These dogs often can't regulate their body temperatures as well, or may not have fat reserves to burn for energy so they shouldn't be left outdoors," he said.

Pets with health conditions may also not be able to regulate their body heat appropriately. "Any pets with underlying medical problems such as diabetes, thyroid problems, kidney disease, hormone imbalances are more susceptible," Delker added.

If hypothermia or frostbite are suspected, Delker recommends bringing the pet to a veterinarian and offers a few first-aid tips to stabilize the animal until it can be seen by a doctor.

"Bring them indoors right away and try to warm them up, but not too quickly," Delker said, because warming them up too quickly can actually cause even more harm to the hurt tissue.

"Putting them in a lukewarm or room-temperature bath can bring up their temperature slowly," he said.

The affected areas can become painful as they warm up, so keep dogs from biting the skin. Also, Delker recommended not rubbing the affected area to try and get blood flowing.

"Massaging the area can be very painful and also cause further damage to the tissue," he said.

Gently dry the animal after the bath to keep it from getting chilled further from being wet. Loosely wrap the animal in a blanket or several towels to keep the pet warm during transport to the veterinarian and to prevent it from further damaging itself.

However, as the saying goes, prevention is the best medicine and Delker recommends several ways to keep pets from suffering from hypothermia or frostbite.

"Provide shelter for outdoor dogs, a dog house or something that will allow them to get out of the wind and elements," Delker said. "Make sure they don't face north, and smaller shelters work better than bigger ones since dogs can heat them up quicker with their body temperatures."

He added, "Make sure the environment in the shelter is dry with lots of insulation, such as hay or straw bedding."

Lots of fresh water also is important, Delker said.

"Water should be warm and clean so dogs can conserve body heat. You don't want them eating snow or licking ice for water," he said.

Heated water bowls can be utilized and several of the newer models have power cords with safety sheaths over them that dogs can't chew through.

Delker recommended in extreme weather, even dogs that have been outdoors all winter long should be brought inside. A barn, garage, basement, porch or some other area can serve as a temporary shelter.

"Whenever the windchill is below zero, pets should be brought indoors," Delker said.

Any pet suspected of having hypothermia or frostbite should be seen by a veterinarian, even an animal that seems to recover initially.

Pets may have unseen damage to their internal organs and frostbitten areas are prone to infection. Also, keep in mind that although pets can become hypothermic without showing signs of frostbite, they often occur simultaneously.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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