Make sure you're prepared to act quickly in case of an emergency situation.

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
November 25, 2020
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Hypothermia is a condition caused when your dog’s temperature drops well below normal. While a normal temp for humans is around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, your dog runs much warmer. If your dog’s body temperature drops below 102.5 degrees, it can be cause for concern. A slight drop is fairly easily remedied, but a severe drop below 99.5 degrees can be life threatening. Small dogs, puppies, elderly dogs, dogs with short hair coats, thin dogs, and dogs with chronic illnesses such as hypothyroidism are all at increased risk for hypothermia.

Causes of Hypothermia in Dogs

When your dog gets cold, he will shiver to help keep his body temperature up. Any exposure that defeats the warming influence of his shivering can cause hypothermia. Just being outside on a cool or cold day can be too much for some dogs. Wind, rain, and snow can make a mild temperature seem much colder (think wind chill factor on your weather report).

Wetness is definitely a factor that can lower your dog’s body temperature faster. While your puppy might enjoy romping in the yard when it is 40 degrees out, throw in some rain, and he may get chilled quickly. Dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors need shelter from wind and precipitation.

The size and health condition of your dog can also determine the temperature ranges a dog can withstand before losing too much body heat.

While we tend to think of hypothermia in cold weather, it can happen in warm weather, too. If your dog is swimming in an unheated pool or a spring fed pond, the water may actually be quite cold. Enthusiastic swimmers won’t always come out right away when they start to get cold.

Golden retriever watches a snowflake intently
Credit: Victoria Neer / Getty

Signs and Symptoms of Dog Hypothermia

  • Shivering: The first signs you will notice if your dog is getting hypothermic will be shivering. This is more obvious on a short coated dog, but long haired dogs will shiver, too.
  • Whining: Some dogs, especially puppies, will whine or fuss when they get cold. Those dogs have mild hypothermia.
  • Curling up: As your dog’s internal temperature drops a bit more, signs become less obvious. Many dogs stop shivering as they develop moderate hypothermia. They become quiet and may curl up to try and stay warm. 
  • Pale gums: Gums may turn pale, bluish, or gray.
  • Cold feet, tails, and ears: As your dog’s body shunts blood to the essential internal organs, appendages will get less blood flow.

As the body temperature drops to around 95 degrees, it becomes clear that your dog is having significant signs of illness. He may stumble if you can get him to move. He will be fairly unresponsive to your calls. His pupils may dilate and his heart rate will slow. This is a dog in severe hypothermia. He may collapse and progress into a coma, or even die, so it is crucial to wrap your dog in blankets and get him to a veterinarian right away.

How to Treat Hypothermia in Dogs

Immediate care to treat hypothermia involves getting your dog somewhere warm and dry. Towel him dry and wrap him in a blanket. You can warm a blanket first by putting it in the dryer for a few minutes, next to a heater or fireplace at home, or if you are traveling, set it near a heat vent in your car. Feel it yourself first to be sure it isn’t too hot to wrap around your dog. Hot water bottles wrapped in towels can be placed around your dog and you can cuddle him, too, especially if he is small. Also offer him warm (not hot!) drinks such as low sodium chicken broth.

Mild hypothermia can be treated at home, but moderate or severe cases need to go to your veterinary hospital. At the veterinary hospital, warming techniques might include the heating pads used for surgery patients as well as warm towels. 

Heated intravenous fluids can also be used to help warm your dog from the inside out, as well as warm water enemas. His heart rate will be carefully monitored and he will be given supplemental oxygen if needed.

After Effects of Hypothermia

There are generally no side effects from mild cases of hypothermia. Moderate and severe cases may cause some damage to internal organs as your dog’s body shunts blood to concentrate on essential organs. Your veterinarian may recommend bloodwork to verify that the liver and kidneys are back to normal function. You will also need to watch for any signs of frostbite which may not be evident for several days up to a week.

Preventing Hypothermia

Clearly, it is best to prevent hypothermia in the first place. Limit time outside on cold, wet days. Instead of taking them out to relieve themselves, puppies and small, elderly, or very thin dogs might do best staying inside and using “wee pads”, especially if temperatures are very low and it is windy.

Consider a warm, windproof jacket or coat for your dog to wear outside. Have multiple jackets on hand so he always goes out with a warm dry one on. Make sure your dog has shelter from wet and wind if he will need to be outdoors in inclement weather.

After all these precautions, note that there are dogs who love the cold weather and handle it well. Northern breeds such as Alaskan malamutes, Samoyeds, and Siberian huskies all love being out in the cold and snow. They may even curl up and sleep in a snowbank! Even my own Belgian Tervuen loves being out in the snow. These dogs are more likely to suffer from overheating than getting too cold. However, because every dog is unique, make sure to watch for any signs of hypothermia anytime your dog is exposed to cold temperatures, and ask your veterinarian how cold is too cold for your dog.