Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Canine Hypothermia: Cold Weather Running with your Dog

    We are now deep into the winter season and much of the United States is experiencing some very cold weather (especially up here in the Northeast!).  If you are residing in California like Matt, well then I suppose you can ignore this post (unless of course you run in the mountains).  Likewise, I’m sure man of your furry friends love partaking in runs on the road and the trails in this cold weather. As a veterinarian, I'd like to share with you some information regarding hypothermia, which is a medical condition that can affect dogs, and is something that requires some understanding to prevent.  This is the first of many posts that will shed some light on various dog related questions you might have.  I hope that these posts will serve to provide basic information regarding common running-related canine health issues and will help everyone have happier, healthier dogs.  Please note that my posts are not intended to replace your veterinarian's recommendations, and I highly recommend you always consult your personal veterinarian with any pressing medical questions.  Onward with this first post on dog health!

My Border Collie Sugar and I enjoying a romp in a typical upstate New York winter storm.

What is Hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a medical condition that involves the body having an abnormally low body temperature, which if left untreated, can lead to disruption of various body systems and even death.  This disruption is all related to how a decreasing core temperature leads to a depression of the central nervous system (CNS).  This effect on the CNS is important, because the CNS is responsible for controlling the body’s homeostasis or “set-point” – in other words, the CNS acts as the thermostat for your dog’s body.  This “set-point” is kept in a very narrow range, and if it increases (as with a fever from the flu) or decreases (as with hypothermia), it deranges other body systems such as the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), respiratory (lungs), and endocrine (glucose metabolism, growth, digestion) systems.  This medical condition is also considered a form of shock, because it can result in life threatening alterations of blood flow to vital organs.  Finally, when a dog is diagnosed with hypothermia, it is generally classified by the degree of body temperature change as well as the clinical presentation (blood pressure, neurological state, etc.). 

The early clinical signs of hypothermia in your dog will involve sluggishness, pale gums/tongue, and in-coordination.  You may also appreciated a slowed heart rate if you place your hand on the right ventral aspect of your dog’s chest.  If allowed to progress, your dog can become shocky, unresponsive, and/or experience frost bite of their peripheral tissues (ears, toes, tip of tail).  If you appreciated any of these abnormal signs, it is imperative that you seek medical attention as soon as possible from your local veterinarian or local emergency veterinary clinic.

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is an ischemic condition, which is where the blood flow to tissues is severely decreased or stopped.   This disruption of adequate blood flow causes a loss of oxygen to those tissues and possibly necrosis (dying cells/tissues) of the affected region.  This pathological process begins with a condition known as frostnip and if left untreated, can progress to the classic frostbite people are most familiar with (see figure 1). 

One can appreciate this on your dog as reddening of exposed skin (ears, muzzle, and belly) and is a reversible process.  Some of you have likely experienced this, where your skin turns red on your fingers and once you warm up you feel a tingling sensation.  Past this early stage, your dog’s skin can be damaged down to all the layers of the skin.  The end result is blackened tissue that is dead and will likely slough or fall off later on.  If you appreciated any of these abnormal signs, bring your dog indoors and seek medical attention as soon as possible from your local veterinarian or local emergency veterinary clinic.

How to Prevent Cold Weather Related Health Issues

The best medicine is to prevent this medical condition from arising in the first place.  The way to accomplish this is to either avoid running with your dog in non-ideal conditions and/or having appropriate protective equipment. But you may have the question, “how do you know if the weather is non-deal for my dog(s)?”  Simple, stand outside with what you are going to wear running and if it feels too cold for you, it is likely too cold for your dog.  The caveat to this is if you have running gear for your dogs.  Yes you heard me right, running gear for your dog.  This includes jackets, booties, and even doggie goggles to protect their eyes from strong freezing winds.  Another benefit of dog booties is that they protect dogs’ paws from salt that can be rather corrosive and irritating to the exposed skin on their feet.

Another important aspect to consider is the breed of dog you have.  Breeds such as huskies, Labradors, retrievers, collies, pointers, and Shepherds are very cold resistant.  This adaptability comes from their thick double coats acting as a barrier from the elements (also a reason to not shave these breeds in the summer, but that will be discussed in a future post).  If you have a toy breed, chondrodysplastic breed (think stocky legged dogs – dachshund, basset, beagle) or a brachiocephalic breed (think squished-face breeds - pug, bulldog, boxer) they generally have a thinner coat and have a decreased ability to thermoregulate due to their odd anatomy. These physical attributes also make them less than ideal athletes and leave them open to other types of injury.  Granted, all dog breeds need exercise, I just wouldn’t recommend an American bulldog as your running partner.

My final point to consider is medical history.  If your dog has a preexisting condition, such as a heart condition or is elderly, it is very important to take extra precautions.  In other words, only do short easy runs with these dogs and avoid extreme cold or hot.  Most importantly with this point, please consult your veterinarians for the appropriate amount and type of exercise if your dog(s) have a chronic or potentially debilitating health condition.

Final Thoughts

Running with your dog(s) in the cold is a great way to maintain your furry friends’ sanity in the winter and is a great form of exercise.  Hopefully with a little bit more understanding of these health issues and how to prevent them, you will be able to achieve more healthy and happy running with your dog(s).  Thank you for reading and as always, tack on!

Thanks for reading!

Editor's Note: As always, the views presented on this website belong to myself or the selected few who contribute to these posts. This website should not and does not serve as a replacement for seeking medical care for you or your dog. If you have a health concern about your dog or suspect an injury, please see your personal or local veterinarian as soon as possible.

Nathaniel S Kollias, MPH, DVM

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