Visiting Vet: Baby, it’s cold outside

Tips on what to do if your pets are left outside too long.

Some dogs like Nero may enjoy the snow, but keep them safe and limit their amount of time spent in frigid weather. — Orlaith Estes

My weather app assures me temperatures will soon creep back into the 40s, but I suspect that will not last long. As I write this, it’s 15°F in West Tisbury. My cats steadfastly refuse to leave the house. My daughter has been breaking ice in the horses’ water buckets at the barn. I am trying to psych myself up (unsuccessfully) just to venture out to the mailbox. Even the dog, who loves cavorting in snow, is cutting playtime short to come inside and snuggle on the couch. In other words, it’s pretty darn cold out there. Here’s another bit of breaking news: Ice is slippery. Seems as though lately I have gotten an inordinate number of calls, many after hours, about situations that, even if pet owners don’t realize it, are related to the weather. Let’s talk about winter.

Welcome to New England. Unless your dog is a Northern breed (like a malamute or husky) who has been acclimated gradually to extreme cold, he should not be living outside this time of year. I know, you watch those shows about Alaska — dozens of sled dogs out in the snow, chained 24/7 next to small wooden dog houses. Theoretically, if you provide adequate insulated shelter from wind, rain, and snow, and your pup is of the appropriate age, breed, and robustness, outdoor living may be fine, but I’m here to tell you that your dog is not White Fang. (Do people still read Jack London?) Your dog needs to live inside.

So what happens when a pampered pet gets cold? My kids laughed last night when our cat, Tigerlily, came dashing in after a brief foray outside. She was all puffed up, fluffy as a Tribble (Do people still watch the original Star Trek?) “Why is she like that?” they asked. It’s called piloerection. Stop giggling. That means her hair is standing on end. Piloerection traps a layer of air close to the skin, which serves as an insulator. Tigerlily’s fluff kept her warm, but when she got too cold, she was smart and came inside. But what if no one had noticed she wanted in? As animals get progressively colder, they start to shiver. These tiny muscular contractions generate internal heat. So if Aspen, the Affenpinscher, comes in from outside shaking like a leaf, he’s not necessarily hurt or sick. Maybe he’s just cold.

If Aspen is left out in the cold longer, his body will try to protect core functions by constricting peripheral blood vessels, focusing circulation of his warm blood to the command centers of heart and brain. If all these mechanisms fail to maintain normal core body temperature, hypothermia results. Any condition that impairs heat production or conservation predisposes Aspen to hypothermia. Smaller animals are more susceptible because of the larger skin surface in proportion to body mass. Short coats provide less insulation than heavy ones. In the very young and very old, thermoregulatory mechanisms may simply not function effectively. Thin animals have less heat-conserving body fat and  less muscle reserves to generate heat. Dogs with arthritis or any disability, injury, or illness, that impairs mobility, will move around less, and, as anyone who skis or snowboards knows, physical activity keeps you warm. Heart disease and endocrine abnormalities such as hypothyroidism also increase risk.

Early signs of hypothermia include mental depression, stiff gait, and lethargy. Shivering may be present but ceases as hypothermia worsens. Pupillary responses become sluggish. Breathing is shallow and irregular. Heart arrhythmias may develop, or a profoundly slow heart rate. Blood pressure plummets. Eventually reflexes disappear, pupils are fixed and dilated, and the individual becomes stuporous or comatose. Severe cases may actually be mistaken for dead. In human medicine the adage about hypothermia is “You’re not dead until you are warm and dead.”

If Aspen is just chilly, you can handle it at home. Give him warm broth to drink. Turn up the thermostat. Wrap him in a warm blanket. Add hot water bottles. Be careful they are not TOO hot and don’t put them directly on the skin. Focus on warming his chest area to restore core temperature first. If hypothermia is severe, Aspen will require professional medical attention and monitoring, including treatments like warm intravenous fluids to increase his body temperature from the inside. Call your veterinarian right away.

You know when you probably don’t need to call your veterinarian right away? When it’s 10 pm and your pup, Doggy Hamill, slipped on the icy walkway outside and now is limping. (Does anyone else still watch figure skating?) I say this with great fondness for all you dog owners out there who love your pets so much. Sure, there are a few occasions when a limping dog is an emergency. Sure, if your little ice skater is in pain, call your veterinarian for advice about what you can do at home to keep her comfortable until morning. But, trust me, you don’t need to drag your veterinarian out of bed tonight.

Same goes for the elderly arthritic dog having trouble getting up. Cold weather (and the accompanying lack of activity ) exacerbates joint pain and muscle stiffness. Get him onto better footing, like a rubber-backed throw rug. Help him get his feet under him. Use a bath towel or log carrier as a sling under his belly to support his weight until he gets steady. Invest in a vest with handles on the back that he can wear around the clock. You can find them from companies like Ruffwear and Helpemup. Get him some Dr. Buzby’s toe grips. These fit over his nails and help keep him from slipping. Ask your veterinarian (during office hours) for a stash of doggy-friendly pain medication to have on hand for those achy winter evenings. Okay. I’m going to go make a cup of hot chocolate, put my feet up, and indulge in some appropriate pastimes for a cold winter night. Maybe read Jack London. Or watch “Star Trek.” Or the figure skating competitions.



  1. Thanks Michelle. You had me laughing between taking in some important information. Love your column.

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