When is the cold too cold for your pet?

Winter is here in the Inland Northwest, and if you can't tolerate the elements for long periods without bundling up, chances are your dog or cat shouldn't either.

When temperatures dip below freezing, or 32 degrees, it's good to remember that pets, especially shorthair cats and dogs, should be brought inside or at least provided shelter. Just as for humans, animals can become hypothermic when their body temperature drops below normal, and frostbite ensues once tissues and extremities begin to freeze.

At the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, we see hypothermic and frostbitten dogs and cats every year. Whether they are primarily outdoor dogs with inadequate shelter or dogs that ran off and have been on the loose, they all share one commonality — they've spent far too much time out in the freezing temperatures.

Most dogs and cats (certainly those with thinner coats) should be exposed to freezing temperatures for no more than 10-15 minutes before having access to a warmer space. Depending on how cold it is, any longer could be enough for hypothermia to settle in and for body temperatures to drop.

According to the American Kennel Club, there are three levels of dog hypothermia: mild hypothermia, when body temperature is between 90 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit; moderate hypothermia, between 82 and 90 degrees; and severe hypothermia, less than 82 degrees. In general, these temperatures can apply to cats and horses too.

Owners who suspect their pet may be hypothermic can use a thermometer and insert it into their dog's anus to check their temperature, but you can also look for other physical signs, like shivering, irregular heart rate and breathing, or visible exhaustion. Animals with hypothermia should be covered with blankets and allowed time to warm up.

Hypothermia and frostbite go hand in hand.  

Dogs with hypothermia often experience frostbite on their paw pads, nose and ears, but animals can get frostbite before becoming hypothermic. Frostbite is painful and can cause animals to look as if they are prancing when they walk. The color of their pads usually turns gray as that tissue freezes and dies. In extreme cases, frostbite may cause long-term tissue damage, and extremities may need to be amputated.

Booties or other covering of paws can help protect against the cold and against harmful rock salts and other ice melts.

Dog and cat owners should also be wiping the salt from their pets' paws regularly. Salt and snow can get stuck in between paw pads and cause pain for pets, almost as if they are stepping on a rock. Additionally, licking such salt can cause sodium to rise to dangerous levels in pets, resulting in excessive urination, dehydration, vomiting and lethargy.

Linda Martin is an associate professor and the lead emergency and critical care specialist at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.