Winter can be a tough time for humans and their animal companions. Pets can experience many of the same ailments and dangers that humans face when the weather turns cold. Unfortunately, pet-owners are not always aware of what they can do to ensure their animals are safe, warm and healthy through the winter months. Two very dangerous issues for animals can be frostbite and deadly hypothermia.
Frostbite is a serious condition that can occur when ice forms on the extremities of a pet or if the flesh simply become too cold for an extended period of time. For example, if an animal is outside during sleet, ice can form along ears, tail or paws and quite literally kill the flesh beneath. This can happen within 15 minutes of exposure and can often go undetected by human caretakers for long periods of time. Many pet owners do not think to examine ears, paws and tails for dangerous ice crystal formation and the tell-tale pale color of frostbite. If your pet’s skin is black or sloughing off your animal may have an extreme case of frostbite. You will need to act quickly.
Shivering is a natural response to the cold, but if your pet is shivering excessively or is showing signs of discomfort in the extremities, take precautionary action right away. These are very strong indicators that you have a case of frostbite on your hands!
It is critical that if you suspect frostbite that you do not rub the affected area, but rather warm the area carefully with warm water or hot water bottles wrapped in towels. Take your pet to a warm area immediately and be sure you are using only warm water. Hot water can damage the tissues further. Do not submerged your pet as this could actually cause the body temperature of your pet to decrease, leading to hypothermia. Soak the frostbitten area for no more than 20 minutes. You may also use a hair drier on low to rapidly warm your pet while someone else prepares towels or hot water bottles. However, this may frighten your pet and result in further injury.
Once the areas are warmed there will be discomfort to you pet (just as you feel some uncomfortable tingling when coming inside from the cold). Wrap your animal companion in a warm blanket or towel. This will not only keep your pet warm, but will prevent him or her from injuring the affected area through biting or scratching. You can also add more hot water bottles, a protected heating pad or rice secured in a sock and warmed in a microwave. If you do choose to add a warming agent such as the heating pad or water bottles, be sure to protect your animal from burns.
Hypothermia is, quite simply, a condition in which your pet’s body temperature has dropped below safe levels. One of the simplest methods for determining if you pet is suffering hypothermia is to take your animal’s temperature. You will need to use a rectal thermometer; your pet will resist. Monitor any temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit for cats or 101 degrees for dogs every 10 – 15 minutes or until your pet regains the normal temperature of 101 degrees. If your pet has a case of hypothermia there will be shivering, but also signs of serious weakness.
Hypothermia can occur without frostbite, so be sure you monitor your pet while he or she is outside. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends not shaving your pets during the winter months as the longer coats provide more protection from both frostbite and hypothermia. If you do need to shave, provide your animal with a sweater or coat and never allow them to go outdoors without.
Once your pet’s symptoms are controlled and body temperature is stabilized, go to the veterinarian. They will be able to properly assess the extent of tissue damage and recommend any further treatment.