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Cold Weather Emergencies
What is an emergency?
An emergency is any serious change in your pets’ behavioral or physical health demanding immediate attention. By definition, an emergency is typically sudden and unexpected.
Hypothermia (Abnormally Low Body Temperature)
Prolonged exposure to cold results in a drop in body temperature. Because a wet coat loses its insulating properties, hypothermia is a potential complication in all dogs and cats submerged in cold water. Cats, toy breed dogs, dog breeds with short hair coats, puppies and kittens, and very old dogs and cats are most susceptible to hypothermia. Hypothermia can occur along with shock in newborn puppies and kittens that become chilled because of inadequate heating in whelping quarters. Prolonged cold exposure burns up both the available and stored energy resulting in a low blood sugar.
The signs of hypothermia are violent shivering followed by listlessness and lethargy; a rectal temperature below 97 degrees F in cats (and small dogs) and below 95 degrees F in dogs; weak pulses; and collapse and coma. Hypothermic patients can withstand extended periods of very low heart rate, low blood sugar, and low blood pressure because low body temperature lowers their metabolic rate. CPR may be successful in such individuals if they arrest.
Wrap your pet in a blanket or coat and carry them into a warm building. If your pet is wet (having fallen into icy water), dry them vigorously with towels. Wrap your pet in a warm blanket and take his/her rectal temperature. If the rectal temperature is above 95 degrees F in a dog or above 97degrees F in a cat (or small dog), continue with the warm blankets and try to encourage your pet to eat a small meal. If he/she will not eat and seems very lethargic, rub some honey or corn syrup on his/her gums to increase their blood sugar.
If your pet’s rectal temperature is below 95 degrees F in a dog or below 97 degrees F in a cat (or small dog), notify your veterinarian or Animal Emergency Service. While awaiting instructions, begin rapid warming by applying warm water bottles wrapped in towels to the pet’s armpits, chest, and groin; then wrap the pet in a warm blanket. The temperature of the warm water bottles should be about that of a baby bottle, warm to the wrist but not hot. Take the rectal temperature every 10 minutes. Continue to change the warm water bottles frequently until the rectal temperature reaches 100 degrees F. Do not apply heat directly to your pet (i.e., avoid warming with a hair dryer or putting your pet on a heating pad) since this may cause burns.
Frostbite occurs when a part of the body freezes and it often occurs with hypothermia. Frostbite tends to involve the toes, pads of the feet, ears (especially the ear tips), scrotum and the tail. These areas are the most exposed to the cold and the least protected by fur.
At first, frostbitten skin is pale, white or blue. As circulation returns, the skin becomes red and swollen and may begin to peel. Eventually, it looks much like a burn: dark to black tissue with a line of demarcation (raw red line) between live and dead tissue. The dead skin separates and peels off in one to three weeks.
Warm frostbitten areas by immersing them in warm (not hot) water for 20 minutes, or until the tissue becomes flushed. Never apply snow or ice to a frostbitten area, because tissue damage is made much more severe if thawing is followed by refreezing. Do not rub or massage the affected parts. Handle them carefully. It is important to remember that as sensation returns, frostbitten tissue can become painful. Try to prevent your pet from biting at the skin and inflicting further injury, until you can be seen by your veterinarian or Animal Emergency Service.
With Animal Emergency Service, if anything happens to your pet that worries you, there is an emergency veterinarian on staff 24-hours a day, 365 days per year, to assess the situation, provide the needed emergency care and give you peace of mind.
Simon Kirk, DVM
Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service
Dr. Kirk is a hospital director and an emergency clinician at Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service, where he has practiced emergency medicine for 12 years.