Burrr. If it's too cold for you outside, it's probably too cold for your pets. Dogs and cats usually fair better than their masters outdoors, but freezing weather can still lead to frostbite and hypothermia in minutes. Even outdoor pets should spend the night indoors when it's dangerously cold.
Drop the thermometer and take a deep breath. It's OK -- your dog or cat's temperature is normally between 100 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit, but minor fluctuations are normal. Dogs lean toward the upper end of the spectrum, cats roost at the bottom end. It's harder for pets to maintain their temperatures in the cold, but, like many members of their mammalian coterie, dogs and cats have fur to retain heat. They grow thicker coats in response to diminished daylight (and, by extension, the cold it portents). If your pet's temperature waivers significantly from the average -- say, by 5 degrees or more -- he needs medical care. Call a veterinarian hotline or visit an animal ER immediately.
There is no set "dangerously cold" temperature for pets. It's an issue of relative tolerance. Some dog breeds, like huskies and malamutes, do fairly well in wintery weather. Indoor pets don't get natural cues to grow winter coats, so it's harder for them to stay warm outside or when you turn down the heat inside. Shorthair varieties have a harder time, too, as do young and elderly pets. When the mercury drops below freezing, most dogs and cats can only endure 10 or 15 minutes outdoors -- fewer still if it's windy. Cold temperatures can cause frostbite and hypothermia.
When to Worry
Hypothermia sets in when your pet's body temperature drops below its normal 100 to 102 degree range. Signs include slow pulse, shallow breathing, disorientation, collapse and unconsciousness. Dry your pet, then warm him up with a towel-wrapped heating pad or warm water bottle. Never place the heat source directly against your pet's skin -- this causes burns. Per the water, the optimal word is "warm," not "hot" -- the latter also causes burns. Avoid bringing a pet from the outdoors to a fully warm area, even when he's shivering, as a drastic change can predispose him to pneumonia. Your dog or cat's ears, toes, tails, teats and scrotum (for an unfixed male) are especially susceptible to frostbite. Even if tissue damage looks apparent, always gradually thaw these areas. Call a veterinarian for help.
How to Help
Protecting your pets from dangerously cold temperatures is better than dealing with the aftermath, naturally. Bring outdoor pets indoors when it drops below freezing, particularly overnight, or give them a blanket and heating pad or heat lamp. Give outdoor pets extra food during the day to help give the extra calories they need to maintain their optimal body temperatures. Change their water often and make sure it doesn't freeze into ice. Outdoor cats or indoor-outdoor cats will ferret out warmth, even if it's from an engine block. Rap the hood of your car before starting it to avoid heartbreak. When you take your pets outdoors in cold weather, dress them in garments like coats or booties. Never leave them alone.
- Oregon State Klickitat County Extension: Cold Weather Care of Small Animals
- Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences: Vital Signs
- Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine: Cold Weather Pet Tips
- The Humane Society of the United States Animal Sheltering: How to Tell if a Cat or Dog May Need Veterinary Care
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Cold Weather Tips
- Today@Colorado State: Veterinarians Give Holiday, Cold Weather Safety Tips for Pets
- Iowa State University Physics and Astronomy Department: Temperature
- Sumters SPCA: Weather Dangers -- Frightful Weather Can Spell DISASTER For Your Pet's Health!
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Prevent Pets' Cold Weather Emergencies
- Petlvr.com: Normal Values for Dog and Cat Temperature, Blood Tests, Urine and Other Information
- Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine: First Aid for Pets
- Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine: Anatomy of the Dog and Cat
- NASA Cool Cosmos: Warm- and Cold-Blooded Animals
- The Orange County Register: Bring Pets Indoors on Those Frosty Nights
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