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Protect Your Pet From The Most Common Winter Pet Emergencies
Here’s how you can protect your pet from some of the most dangerous health conditions that occur during the Winter, and how to respond if a medical emergency does occur.
Winter can be a magnificent time of year. We get to enjoy the holidays, make the most of sweater weather, and embrace all the cozy vibes! However, Winter is also a dangerous time of year for our pets. During the winter, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop below freezing throughout the United States. This puts our dogs and cats at risk of developing cold-related illnesses. Keep reading to learn about the most common medical emergencies pets suffer from during the winter, and how you can prevent and treat them.
Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, typically after prolonged exposure to the cold. Both humans and pets can develop hypothermia. While you would think your pet’s fur coat protects them from the cold, even dogs and cats who were bred for cold climates can be at risk of developing hypothermia if temperatures drop enough. Although hypothermia can be fatal, it’s also entirely preventable. Therefore, it’s important to understand how to prevent your pet from developing hypothermia and how to recognize the early signs so your pet can receive treatment before it’s too late.
It’s common sense that hypothermia can set in after your pet has been exposed to the cold for too long. But how do you know when it is too cold? In general, cold temperatures don’t start becoming a problem for pets until they fall below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, your pet may start showing signs that they are uncomfortable, such as by whining, shivering, or looking for warm places to burrow. When temperatures drop to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, pets who are most susceptible to the cold will be at risk for developing hypothermia. This includes smaller pets, senior dogs and cats, puppies and kittens, immune-compromised or sick pets, and pets with thinner coats. If you’re not sure if your pet falls into a category that makes them especially susceptible to the cold, your veterinarian should be able to tell you. Once temperatures drop to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it is no longer safe for any pet to be outside for very long due to a significantly increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
The best way to prevent your pet from developing hypothermia is to pay attention to the temperature and limit their time outdoors when it’s cold. If your pet has a thin coat or is on the smaller side, they might appreciate wearing a sweater or a heated dog bed. In addition to keeping pets inside, make sure your home is warm enough on cold days. And if you like taking your pet along on errands, be aware that your car can quickly become a freezing ice box for your pet. If your dog will be with you in the car, opt for curbside delivery where you can stay in the car with your pet to monitor the temperature. Similarly, bring a human passenger with you who can keep an eye on your pet and ensure it stays warm enough in the car while you run your errand.
A healthy dog should have a normal body temperature between 101°F and 102.5°F and a cat’s body temperature should be between 100.5°F and 102.5°F. Any temperature below these ranges can be considered hypothermia. Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, difficulty walking, muscle stiffness, pale gums, confusion, and cool body surfaces. As soon as you notice these symptoms, contact your veterinarian and take steps to warm up your pet.
Depending on the severity of your pet’s condition, you may be able to cure mild cases of hypothermia at home. Wrap your pet in a cozy blanket and try increasing their body temperature with a heating pad or warm water bottle. Just be sure the water bottle isn’t too hot to avoid burns. Try giving your pet a warm (not hot) bowl of water or broth to sip. If your pet is wet, you can try rubbing them dry with a towel. However, only do this if you’re sure your pet does not also have frostbite. Take your pet’s temperature every 10 minutes and monitor their condition for improvements.
You’ll be able to tell that your pet’s hypothermia is going from mild to moderate or severe if they lose the ability to warm themselves through shivering, develop a slow and irregular heartbeat, struggle to breathe, become comatose, collapse, or have fixed and dilated pupils. Ideally, you’ll have been monitoring your pet and will have brought them to the vet before their condition could become this severe. Your vet will be able to treat your pet with more aggressive warming techniques, fluids, and oxygen. They will also address underlying health problems that could be contributing to your pet’s severe hypothermia.
Ultimately, the best treatment for hypothermia is prevention. But if you suspect your pet has hypothermia and isn’t improving, call your vet immediately for guidance. Since prolonged hypothermia can be fatal and result in coma, heart failure, and organ failure, your pet must receive proper treatment as soon as possible.
In addition to hypothermia, your pet could also develop frostbite due to the cold weather. While it’s possible to suffer from frostbite and hypothermia at the same time, your pet could also only have one or the other. However, these medical emergencies usually do go hand-in-hand. Frostbite cases can also range from mild to severe.
Like hypothermia, cats and dogs develop frostbite after prolonged exposure to the cold. This is because the body’s natural response to cold weather is to constrict blood vessels to make sure essential organs are receiving enough blood flow. However, this also leaves your pet’s extremities more susceptible to frostbite. Typically, your pet’s paws, tail, ears, and anywhere they are damp or wet are most likely to get frostbite.
You’ll know dogs and cats are developing frostbite if their skin becomes pale. The skin may develop a bluish-white coloring, which is a sign of restricted blood flow. The affected skin will feel cool to the touch and ice may even form in the impacted areas. The symptoms of frostbite will also come in three degrees of severity:
First-Degree Frostbite: Your pet’s skin is pale and hard. As the area is warmed, the skin will become scaly, red, and swollen. This may be painful for your pet and necessitate a prescription for pain medication from your veterinarian.
Second-Degree Frostbite: In addition to the symptoms of first-degree frostbite, your pet’s skin will start to blister.
Third-Degree Frostbite: As your pet’s skin warms up, it will darken instead of becoming red. If this occurs, contact your veterinarian immediately because this constitutes an emergency. The skin darkening and other symptoms could occur over a period of several days. In addition, your pet may have areas of blackened or dead skin, or develop gangrene. Your pet could start to smell bad because of secondary bacterial infections that may be brewing.
Your pet’s prognosis will depend entirely on the severity of their frostbite and how much of their body is impacted. For mild frostbite cases, the damage is typically only cosmetic and pets will make a full recovery. But for severe cases, drastic measures like amputation of affected limbs may be required to save your pet’s life or your pet will be left with permanent disfiguration.
If your pet has a mild case, you may be able to treat frostbite at home in similar ways to how you’d treat hypothermia. (If your pet also has hypothermia, address the hypothermia first because it is more life-threatening.) Do not directly warm the area from a heat source like a hair dryer or heating pad, but you can warm a towel with a hair dryer or in your clothes dryer and then apply the warm (not hot) towel to your pet’s skin. Do not rub or massage the affected areas, as this would be quite painful for your pet and could cause more damage. Keep your pet warm and monitor their symptoms. Do not give your pet any medication unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
That said, always call your veterinarian if you have questions or any doubts. In general, it’s a good idea for vets to examine pets with frostbite. There is a good chance your pet is also suffering from hypothermia or systemic shock if they have frostbite, which is something your vet can identify and help treat. Depending on how long your pet was exposed to extreme cold, your vet may also want to conduct diagnostic testing to check for damage to internal organs that wouldn’t be obvious in a physical exam. Your vet will also be able to provide appropriate pain medications or antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections from forming.
Like hypothermia, the best way to treat frostbite is prevention. Don’t let your pet outside for prolonged periods of time when it’s too cold. In addition, be mindful that the surfaces your pet is walking on are also just as cold as the freezing air. Take measures to protect your pet with booties that can guard against cold ice and snow, or sweaters if your pet has a thin coat.
During the holiday season and throughout the winter, your pet is at an increased risk for accidental poisonings. For example, many plants used in holiday decorating and even the decorations themselves can be dangerous for pets to play with or consume. Even when you start taking down your decorations in early January, you’ll want to keep anything that can be toxic to your pet well out of reach.
In addition, antifreeze used to protect your car in extreme temperatures is extremely toxic to pets. If you aren’t familiar with it, antifreeze is an engine coolant that regulates your car engine’s operating temperature. Unfortunately, antifreeze tastes delicious to pets, and even ingesting small amounts of antifreeze can be fatal. For example, just five tablespoons of antifreeze are enough to kill a medium-sized dog. Meanwhile, a cat could pass away from walking through a puddle of antifreeze and then licking his paw. This is because antifreeze causes fatal kidney failure in both dogs and cats. It’s of the utmost importance you do not allow your pet access to even a little bit of antifreeze this Winter.
If you see your pet consume anti-freeze or suspect they may have, get to your nearest emergency veterinary clinic as soon as possible. Since most pets do pass away once kidney failure sets in, it’s important to start treatment quickly for the best chance of saving your pet’s life. Early treatment is most effective. If you see your pet acting like he may be drunk, drinking excess water, urinating more than normal, vomiting, appearing depressed, or suffering from seizures, don’t rule out antifreeze poisoning and proceed to the emergency vet for immediate treatment.
While not quite as lethal as antifreeze, most ice melts and rock salts are also toxic to pets. In addition to causing gastrointestinal upset when ingested, ice melts can cause skin irritation or even chemically burn your pet’s paws depending on the length of exposure. If your dog or cat has been exposed to toxic ice melts, they may suffer from increased urination, nausea and gastrointestinal upset, drastic drops in blood pressure, body and muscle weakness, and neurological issues. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately for guidance.
In order to protect your pet, be careful where you are walking them and consider having them wear protective booties on their paws. You can also opt to use pet-safe ice melts around your own property. While pet-safe ice melts still shouldn’t be ingested, they are much safer than other brands.
Just like people, Winter is cold and flu season for pets. In big cities like Los Angeles, veterinarians are seeing the biggest outbreaks of canine flu ever. Canine influenza is highly contagious and is spread between dogs via coughing, sneezing, barking, and sharing contaminated objects like toys or water bowls. It’s easily spread in locations like doggy daycares, grooming salons, and dog parks. Virtually 100% of dogs exposed to canine influenza do develop symptoms.
The symptoms of canine flu that plague dogs are very similar to what humans experience. The symptoms range in severity, but generally include fever, lethargy, a runny nose, and a cough that lasts for up to 21 days and doesn’t respond to antibiotics. Aside from being uncomfortable for a while, most dogs can make a full recovery at home. That said, canine flu can be life-threatening in immunocompromised dogs, senior dogs, or puppies with developing immune systems. If you notice your pet’s symptoms are particularly severe, continuing to worsen, or your dog has trouble breathing, contact your veterinarian immediately. While canine flu can resolve itself on its own in 2-3 weeks, it can also lead to pneumonia and secondary bacterial infections in some cases. In these situations, your dog may need supportive care from your veterinarian and additional medications to treat secondary illnesses.
Thankfully, there is a flu vaccine designed specifically for dogs. Vaccinating your dog can prevent your pup from falling ill in the first place and helps mitigate symptoms if they do become exposed. Even if your dog has been vaccinated for canine flu in the past, it may be time for another vaccine. Just like people, dogs need a new flu vaccine each year. If dogs with the flu vaccine do get sick at all, they generally only suffer from mild cases.
In addition, do your best to limit your dog’s exposure to other dogs that are known to be sick. If you are going to the dog park, bring your own water bowl so your dog doesn’t have to share his water with dogs who could be sick. And if your dog is sick, keep him home to rest. Not only will your dog recover faster in the comfort of his own home, but you won’t expose other dogs at your local dog daycare or dog park.