Most dogs love a good romp in the snow or long walk on a frosty day. And for the most part, they’re naturally equipped to tolerate cold temperatures to an impressive degree —especially dense or double-coated breeds like Siberian huskies and Saint Bernards. But there are instances in which prolonged exposure to cold causes a dog’s body temperature to drop dangerously low, resulting in hypothermia. Dogs at a greater risk for hypothermia include those that are small, very young or old, thin coated, have low body fat, health issues (such as heart disease or diabetes), or those that become wet while exposed to the cold.
The first sign of hypothermia is shivering. Other signs include pale gums, slow heart rate and lethargy. Bring the dog indoors immediately and dry her off if necessary (a hair dryer on low-medium setting will help warm her at the same time — just be sure to keep it at a safe distance to avoid burns). Wrap her in warm blankets until she stops shivering. If possible, wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and place it next to (but not directly on) her. If she’s alert, offer her warm broth to drink (without onion!) Take her temperature and call your veterinarian right away for further advice.
Dogs with hypothermia are also at risk for frostbite. When a dog’s body temperature drops, blood flow is naturally diverted to her “core” body to protect the internal organs. This leaves her extremities such as the tips of the ears, the tail, and feet susceptible to freezing. The affected areas will be pale and hard to the touch, the ears may droop slightly, and the dog will limp. Blisters, swelling or areas of blackened skin may also be observed. Bring the dog indoors immediately and gently warm the affected areas with warm (not hot) compresses. DO NOT rub or massage the skin, as this can cause further tissue damage, and beware that as the frostbitten areas thaw, they will become very painful. Seek immediate veterinary treatment.
If you suspect both hypothermia and frostbite, always treat the hypothermia first.
Luckily, both hypothermia and frostbite are easily preventable. Simply avoid prolonged exposure to frigid temps, adjusting to your dog’s individual tolerance level. For smaller, thin coated dogs, puppies, and other canines ill-suited to cold climates, dress them in well fitting coats, booties and other cold-weather gear. Bring your dog inside and dry her off if she gets wet. And if you have a hardier breed that must be left outdoors for a few hours, make sure she has access to a warm, dry shelter such as an insulated dog house.