Winter is full of fun activities for your family, and your pets probably want to enjoy those times with you. When it is bitterly cold, however, it can be dangerous for your pet to be outside for very long. Often, people think that a cat or dog’s fur coat is enough to protect them from harsh cold temperatures, but that isn’t always the case.
What Can Dangerously Low Temperatures Do to Pets?
When cats and dogs are left in the cold for too long, they can suffer from the same problems that humans face. Both frostbite and hypothermia are just as dangerous for animals as they are for people, and as a pet owner, you want to keep your pet safe even when it is freezing outside.
Virginia Veterinary Centers wants to help you better understand the dangers of cold weather to your pets in the hopes that all pets stay safe from hypothermia and frostbite during the winter season.
Signs of Frostbite and Hypothermia
Frostbite is characterized by the discoloration and coldness of the skin. In pets, frostbite generally turns skin pale, bluish, or gray. The area of skin affected by frostbite may also be swollen and covered in blisters or skin ulcers. Frostbite causes pain in the affected body parts, and extreme cases can cause skin to turn black and die.
It may take several days for the signs of frostbite to appear in small areas of the body. As the tissue affected by frostbite thaws, it may become very red, swollen, and painful. If the tissue damage is too severe, the area can become necrotic or dead. It is at this point that the skin turns black and dies. Eventually, it will fall off. It may also develop pus and a foul smell due to the bacterial infection caused by the frostbite.
The most common areas for your pet to get frostbite are the ears, paws, and tail. These areas are more prone to frostbite, because they are further away from the heart and they have a lot of exposed surface area.
When pets are dealing with hypothermia, you will notice that they seem lethargic. Cats and dogs with hypothermia will also shiver or tremble. Since cats and dogs have a normal body temperature of 101°F to 102.5°F, if their temperatures fall below 99°F, they should be taken to a veterinarian or 24-hour veterinary emergency hospital right away. It is hard to tell an animal’s temperature by looking at them, so you should keep a thermometer on hand just in case of an emergency.
Preventing Frostbite and Hypothermia
Your best bet for protecting your pets from frostbite and hypothermia is to prevent it from ever occurring in the first place. When the temperatures drop below freezing (32°F), it can be dangerous for pets to be left outside for very long. Here are some tips for preventing frostbite and hypothermia, as well as general winter weather safety tips for pets:
- Understand what your pet can handle. Dogs and cats with long, thick coats are better able to withstand cold temperatures for longer. Pets with short hair, puppies and kittens, and senior pets shouldn’t be left out in the cold for longer than a few minutes.
- Wipe of your pet’s paws when they come in from outside. Cold, wet paws are more than just uncomfortable. Often, we walk our dogs through salt, anti-freeze, de-icers, and other potentially harmful chemicals without even thinking about it. When your pet licks its paws, they can ingest these chemicals and become ill.
- Keep your pet off of icy bodies of water. No matter how thick the ice looks, it could break under your pet and submerge them in freezing water that can quickly cause them to become hypothermic.
- Bring your pets inside. If you have animals that typically live outside, it is a good idea to provide them at least some form of shelter that can keep them out of the snow and wind, but it is better if they can be brought into a home with heat.
- Keep your pet on a leash. Snow and ice can cause numerous problems for off-leash pets. In addition to falling into a frozen lake or in a snow bank, if your dog or cat gets away from you, the snow can cover up scents that would lead your pet back home. Keep your pet on a leash and have updated information on his or her collar just in case. Microchipping your pet is always a good idea as well.
- Never leave your pet unattended in a car during cold temperatures. It’s best if you just leave your pet at home when possible.
- Include your pets in any winter emergency plans. When you create a plan and kit for winter power outages, include water, food, and medication for your pets as well.
Treating Frostbite and Hypothermia
While you should immediately seek veterinary care for animals with suspected frostbite or hypothermia, there are a few things you can do to help your pet:
- Get your pet to a warm, dry area as soon as possible.
- Always treat hypothermia first. Wrap your dog or cat in warm, dry towels or blankets to start the warming process, this needs to be gradual. Then you can place hot water bottles wrapped in towels near your pet’s body.
- Avoid rubbing or massaging the area.
- If you have warm (NOT HOT) water, you can heat up the area with water. The water temperature should be between 104°F and 108°F, which would be comfortable for you if you placed your hand in it. Water that is too hot can cause further damage to the tissue.
- Avoid direct dry heat including hair dryers and heating pads.
- After warming the area, PAT it dry carefully.
- Keep your pet warm during the trip to the veterinarian using dry blankets or towels that have been warmed in the dryer.
- Don’t give your pet any medication unless you have been instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
Once at your family veterinarian, he or she will examine your cat or dog and treat the hypothermia and/or frostbite. Your pet will probably be given pain medications, as thawing the tissue is a very painful process. Antibiotics are also given to pets to prevent and treat any bacterial infection caused from the frostbite. In severe cases of frostbite, amputation of affected parts may be part of the treatment plan.
If you believe that your pet is experiencing hypothermia or frostbite and you live in the Fredericksburg, Richmond, or Midlothian, Virginia, areas, contact Virginia Veterinary Centers for emergency care. The veterinarians at Virginia Veterinary Centers can diagnose and treat your pet’s ailments while providing exceptional care.