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How to Recognize and Treat Canine Hypothermia

Don't be one of those people who refuses to outfit your dog with a coat. Fur isn't everything, people.

 |  Jan 23rd 2014  |   7 Contributions


Editor's note: This article originally ran on Helen's blog, Travels with My Dog, but we're rerunning it here with her kind permission for Dogster readers. 

Raja and I are trying to preach to the unconverted, not those of you who are knitting, shopping, or designing up a storm to make sure your dogs are warm in winter. You people don’t need to read further. (Yarn is on sale now post Christmas. Stock up.)

We are writing to the unconverted. May this post find you diehards out there. We know who you are. When we post listicles for Dogster, you are those fighting mad reactionaries who write in “Dogs have fur, stupid” and “That’s why they’re dogs, not people” when we advocate weatherproofing your pup. You, especially, should read and learn the symptoms and treatments below.

Let’s go back to our favorite ancient subject: wolves. Yes, dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves do not wear coats. In the wild, they hunt prey; drink from chilly, pristine streams; sleep in the snow -- and live an average of five years. The cause of death probably is not lack of coats, but general wear and tear of living the life of a hunter/forager in all kinds of weather: cold, hot, hungry, thirty, tired, hurt, diseased ... all discomforts you seek to protect your dog from.

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Raja strolls through the snow in his boots.

Now let’s consider your dog. Unless your dog is one of the dogs of snow -- Malamute, Alaskan sled dogs, and similar breeds -- and unless you yourself live outside in a very cold climate and your dog was born right there in your ice cave -- your dog probably needs a coat or sweater when the temperature dips below 35 degrees F. If your domestic dog is as comfortable as you are with temperatures between 62 to 70 F inside, he won’t be comfortable for extended periods when the temperature is 40 degrees less.

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Some breeds are hardier than others -- but you should still be alert for symptoms of hypothermia. Dog on ice floe by Shutterstock

So, for short outings around the property or to the corner and back, your dog will probably be happy without the ritual of coating up, but, for long walks in cold air, a coat helps your dog feel comfortable by insulating a warm layer near the skin and the fur. Rather than making you look simpleminded, a coat broadcasts that you know what you’re doing as a dog owner.

I’m not saying your dog isn’t hardy and I’m surely not suggesting you mollycoddle your dog. My Shih Tzu Raja and I go everywhere together. Up mountains, down mountains, into the drifts, into the dunes, across the sands ... but we gear up for each environment so we don’t make fools of ourselves by needing to be rescued and ruining our travel cred.  

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Raja and Sherpa cuddle up in their boots after a long walk.

All dogs love snow. Help your dog enjoy many snowy winters with you checking out this extreme cold symptoms list:

Symptoms of hypothermia for dogs

  • Strong shivering. If the shivering just won’t stop after a good run, if he is shaking uncontrollably, you have an emerging problem.  Wrap your dog up and run for shelter. He won’t get any better outside at this point.
  • Pale skin. Roll back your dog's fur. Is pink skin white or blue gray skin a dull ash color? Get your dog inside fast because your dog cannot recover in the cold at this point.

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With my warm coat over fluffy fur, I'll stay well insulated for my hike.

  • Unexpected listlessness and lethargy changing the pace of moving outside. If you have to call him to move or pull on the leash, your dog is in trouble in the extreme cold. Cool weather always makes a dog walk faster and cold weather makes him trot. If he’s lethargic, he’s giving up and his system is closing down. Pick him up and run.
  • Frostbite symptoms. These may take a few days to show up as blisters or raw, swollen skin, and the symptoms are even worse under the top layer. Frostbite is possible easily when icy wind blows across a wet nose or when wet paws come in contact with ice.

Emergency treatment

  • Wrap your dog in warm blankets heated on the radiator or in the dryer, and apply a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to the dog’s abdomen.
  • Give warm fluids.
  • Raise the body temp to above 100 degrees F (38.8 C) before removing the water bottle.
  • Do not attempt to treat for suspected frostbite in the cold. Wait until you get your dog inside and then warm the affected parts with warm, not hot, wet towels.  Keep the warm towels on until the parts are fully warm and the dog’s core temperature has risen stably. Do not use dry heat on frostbite areas.  

Here's a video of Raja happily walking in the snow:

In all cases of hypothermia, get your dog to the vet in a warm car following emergency triage -- and don't fritter time on the Internet trying to diagnose your dog. 

Learn more about dogs with Dogster:

Read more on Dogster about helping dogs in colder temperatures: 

About the author: Helen is a trainer, blogger, traveler, and dog companion.  She lives bicoastally with her intrepid Shih Tzu, Raja, and writes about their global travels and dog wellness, accomplishments and fun at www.traveldogbooks.com. Their book, The Journey of the Shih Tzu, is a breed history about little wolves who came in from the cold.

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