Cold snaps can threaten pets’ health

Published 6:00 am Monday, December 11, 2006

The official opening of winter on Dec. 22 is drawing near, but alocal veterinarian said it is not too soon for people to ensuretheir pets and livestock are prepared for freezingtemperatures.

Dr. William Kimble of the Animal Medical Center said he hasdiagnosed three cases of hypothermia following a recent cold snap,including one that resulted in the death of a dog.

Hypothermia is usually caused by extended exposure to coldtemperatures or a cool, damp environment. It occurs when the body’scontrol mechanisms fail to maintain a normal body temperature.

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Hypothermia usually comes on gradually. Common signs to look forare shivering, which is the body’s attempt to generate heat throughmuscle activity, and stumbling or other signs of a lack ofcoordination. These behaviors may be a result of changes inconsciousness and motor coordination caused by hypothermia. Othersigns and symptoms may include an abnormally slow rate ofbreathing; cold, pale skin; or fatigue, lethargy or apathy.

The severity of hypothermia can vary, depending on how low thecore body temperature goes. Severe hypothermia will eventually leadto cardiac and respiratory failure, then death.

“In the rash of everyday life, people sometimes forget to makeaccommodations for their pets,” Kimble said. “The best thing, whenpossible, is to bring them indoors, whether that’s a laundry orstoreroom or a dog house – anything to keep them out of the directelements.”

However, if pets must be left outdoors, simply providing a placefor them out of the weather and supplying clean, dry bedding willoften prevent many cold problems, he said.

“Outside pets become acclimated to the environment. MotherNature takes care of them by providing warmer winter coats and anatural tendency to put on weight to allow fat to provideinsulation,” Kimble said.

Mississippi pets, though, are acclimated to temperatures in themid-30s and above and are not accustomed to temperatures in theteens or 20s so owners are encouraged to help them through thebrisk cold snaps.

“One thing we can do easily is increase their food supply,”Kimble said.

An increase of 25 percent in their daily food supply can vastlyimprove the animal’s chances of staving off hypothermia, he said.The food increase encourages a higher metabolic rate, whichgenerates heat to maintain their core body temperature.

Pet owners should also check the animal’s source of waterperiodically to ensure it’s not frozen, he said. Dehydration cancontribute to a loss of body temperature control.

Some pet owners have attempted to prevent hypothermia byproviding their pets with temperature control devices, likeelectrical heating pads or blankets.

Kimble discouraged such practices, however, because it increasesthe risk of fires and accidental shock. Some pets, especially dogs,are known for their penchant to chew on electrical cords. Inaddition, factors outside of local control, such as power surges,could harm the animals.

“Clients mean well, but generally it’s not recommended,” hesaid. “If we do these other things – provide shelter and drybedding, increase the food supply and ensure they can reach water -they will do fine, even in these lower temperatures.”