Recognizing and Treating Hypothermia in Puppies

Puppy running through the snow

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A fur coat doesn’t make puppies immune to hypothermia, a condition when the pet’s body temperature falls below normal.

Puppies normally conserve body heat by seeking shelter, curling up and fluffing their fur to trap warm air next to the skin. Of course, a short-haired puppy doesn’t have much protection. In cold weather, a puppy’s body diverts blood circulation from the ear tips, toes and tail to the central part of the body. Shivering generates heat.

Outdoor Dangers

Outdoor pets are at the highest risk, but even moderately cool temperatures can be dangerous. A twenty-mile-per-hour wind makes forty-degree weather feel like 18 degrees. If it rains or snows and soaks your puppy, wet fur chills the pet even more.

The wind strips away that layer of warm air trapped by fur next to their skin. That can make even moderate temperatures dangerous.

Normal Body Temperature

In adult dogs, normal temperature ranges from about 100 to 102.5 F. A higher-than-normal body temperature can arise from illness due to fever or heat stroke.

But very young puppies — those under about six weeks of age — have trouble maintaining body temperature. That’s why they hunker down next to mom and sleep in puppy piles with their siblings. Huddling together cuts down on wind loss of heat, and the multiple furry bodies can share and boost each others' warmth.

Recognizing and Treating Mild Hypothermia

Mild hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls between 95 to 99 degrees F and causes pets to act a bit sluggish and lethargic. You’ll see muscle tremors and shivering.

Bring the puppy inside, dry him off, and turn up the heat and he should recover with no problem. If you can’t get the pet someplace warm, try putting him inside your clothing to share your body heat.

Recognizing and Treating Moderate Hypothermia

Moderate hypothermia is defined as a temperature between 91 to 95 F. These pets can also be treated at home but may take longer to recover.

Offer hot soup to help warm the puppy from the inside out. Wrap him in a towel or blanket heated in the clothes drier.

Recognizing Severe Hypothermia

Severe hypothermia, body temperature 90 F or less, can be deadly. Rectal thermometers register only to 93 F though, so check to see if your dog still shivers.

Pets lose the ability to shiver if their body temperature falls to 90 F or below, so that’s a warning sign. They may fall unconscious and breathing and heart rate slows to the point the puppy may appear dead. Sometimes CPR or rescue breathing is necessary.

Treating Severe Hypothermia

Any pet suffering from severe hypothermia — that is, body blue and cold, and unable to shiver — needs immediate veterinary care. When body temperature has been below 90 F for more than 30 minutes, “core rewarming” is necessary. That means warming the pet from the inside using specialized veterinary techniques.

You can dry him off and wrap him in warm blankets. During the car ride to the emergency room, it may be helpful to apply a hot water bottle (wrapped in a towel) to his groin area because the femoral artery lies close to the surface of the skin. The hot water bottle applied to this area can help warm the blood so it circulates and speeds up his re-warming.

Pets in severe hypothermia risk shock. Rub a bit of Karo syrup or honey on the puppy’s gums. The sugar is absorbed through the tissue and that may help raise his blood sugar levels and counter the risk of shock.

Veterinary Treatment for Hypothermia

Your veterinarian may treat severely hypothermic pets with warm intravenous fluids, warm water enemas, airway rewarming using oxygen or even heart/lung bypass machines that warm the blood. But even with treatment, the prognosis is guarded in cases of severe hypothermia since organs and tissues are often irreparably damaged.

Pets that have suffered hypothermia in the past are at greater risk in the future for a relapse. Damage caused by the extreme cold reduces the body’s ability to stay warm.

Prevention is the best policy, and the best prevention is to keep pets indoors during inclement weather.