Hypothermia in pets: What is it and how can you prevent it?

Does your dog hog the fire in winter or your cat become a homebody? Do your bunnies like to burrow in their extra hay? It’s no surprise, really – we all enjoy a little bit more warmth and comfort in winter.

But did you know the cold can also cause a dangerous – and potentially deadly - condition called ‘hypothermia’? We’ve put together this quick and easy guide to help you spot the symptoms and stop your pet from getting seriously ill.

What is hypothermia?

Your pet can develop hypothermia if they get really cold and can’t warm up. If it’s not treated quickly, it can cause their body to shut down.

Your pet is at risk of hypothermia if:

  • They’re out in the cold for too long without any protection or shelter from the weather. (especially old, very young, very small or frail pets)
  • They suddenly become very, very cold e.g. falling into freezing water.

Why are pets at risk?

You might think that pets are totally protected from the cold by all their fur but this isn’t true.

Pets with thin coats feel the cold weather quicker than pets with thicker fur but any pet can become seriously ill if the temperature of their body drops too low. Shivering is a way of the body trying to warm itself, but if this doesn’t work, the body temperature will continue to drop.

Signs and symptoms of hypothermia

Your pet could develop hypothermia if they’ve been out in the cold for a long time and can’t warm themselves up. Look out for things like:

  • Shivering (this is an early sign of hypothermia but be aware that your pet will stop shivering if their body temperature drops very low)
  • Paleness (lift their lips to see the colour of their gums)
  • Low energy and seeming very sleepy
  • Bad co-ordination (stumbling or bumping into things)
  • Coma (where they fall asleep and you can’t wake them up).

Hypothermia is an emergency and you should phone your vet right away.

What to do if your think your pet has hypothermia

Acting quickly and doing the right thing could save your pet’s life. It’s important to call your vet straight away and follow their advice.

If you think your pet is suffering because of the cold and might have hypothermia, here’s some simple first aid you can do while you speak to your vet:

  • Get your pet out of the cold. Warming them up too quickly can be a shock for their body so take them somewhere sheltered and warm but not very hot.
  • If your pet is wet, dry them gently with a towel.
  • Slowly warm them up. You can do this by placing thick blankets underneath them and over them.
  • Be careful not to overdo it and make your pet too warm, as this can also be dangerous for them.
  • If your pet is awake, try getting them to drink some luke warm (not hot) water.
  • Take your pet to the vet. It’s important for your pet to be properly checked over, even if you think they’re okay.

How to protect your pet from the cold

If temperatures drop:

  • Make sure your pet always has somewhere warm and dry to go if the weather gets cold. Read more about keeping small pets warm.
  • Always keep a close eye on pets when they spend time outside in very cold weather
  • Keep cats inside so they can stay lovely and warm (they probably won’t want to go out into the cold!) Read more about how you can keep cats active.
  • Try and keep dogs dry on walks so they don’t feel the cold. Some dogs with thinner fur – like greyhounds or Jack Russells – might be happier wearing a dog coat for extra warmth. Find out more about staying safe and keeping warm on winter walks.
  • Move small pets indoors or into a car-free garage or shed and make sure they have plenty of bedding. Cover hutches with old blankets (but make sure fresh air can still get into the hutch to keep it well ventilated).

Remember: Never leave a pet in a cold car

We all know about the dangers of leaving a pet in a hot car but did you know that cold cars can be just as deadly?

Think how cold your car can be when you first get into it – it can be just as cold as outdoors! Even if you’ve had the heating on while you’re driving, the temperature can drop very quickly, leaving your pet in serious danger.

All pet owners would agree that a quick trip to the shops or round to a friend’s isn’t worth losing your pet for. Drop them off at home instead, where they can stay warm and safe.