Keeping Your Pet Safe in Frigid Weather

Published January 11, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Regardless of the hot temperatures in summer, or the frigid weather in winter, dog owners take those daily walks outdoors with their beloved pets. At press time, New Englanders will see unprecedented warmth this winter with temperatures rising into the 40’s, but don’t get complacent – this year’s Farmer’s Almanac predicts that “Old Man Winter will return with a vengeance.” This annually published periodical, famous for its long-range weather predictions, wagers that the eastern half on the nation will see plenty of cold weather and snow before Spring approaches.

While those chilly air temperatures and blustery winds may make you shiver and bring on chills, it has the same effect on your pets, and in some cases, becomes deadly, cautions E.J. Finocchio, D.V.M, President of the East Providence-based Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RISPCA). This 141 year old nonprofit society that advocates for the welfare of all animals also promotes being responsible pet owners, as well as advocating pet overpopulation control.

Location, Location, Location

With Rhode Island being located in the nation’s “cold zone,” Dr. Finocchio says that the occurrence of hypothermia is not unusual, with the state’s below zero temperatures in winter. When the core temperature of the animal’s body begins to lose heat faster than it can produce it, that is when hypothermia can set in. “Dogs that are especially prone to hypothermia are puppies under 6 months old, elderly dogs, short hair breeds, small sized dogs, dogs with health issues (arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, etc.) and pets that are obese or underweight,” he says.

“Symptoms of hypothermia in animals is similar to that found in humans, as well as in all warm blooded animals,” notes Dr. Finocchio.

According to Dr. Finocchio, mild cases in dogs might include shivering, whining and the animal begins to act lethargic or tired. For moderate cases, he adds, the animal loses its ability to shiver and loses coordination and appears to be clumsy. At this point the dog may lose consciousness. If it gets to this point, the dog’s life is in serious jeopardy. Finally, he notes that for severe cases, at this point the animal will have collapsed, it will have difficulty in breathing, its pupils will become dilated. The dog will become unresponsive. If hypothermia gets to this point it is critical that the animal be warmed quickly and taken to an emergency vet center.
A rectal thermometer will enable you to gauge the temperature of the animal’s internal organs to confirm hypothermia, notes Dr. Finocchio. A normal temperature falls between 101 degrees to 102 degrees. If the temperature falls between 96 – 99 degrees it is considered a mild case; moderate falls between 90-95 degrees F and a body temperature of under 90 degrees F, is a sure sign of severe hypothermia.

Going to Court for Animal Cruelty

Finocchio says that if a pet’s death is determined to be caused by hypothermia, through a necropsy (autopsy performed on an animal) and a history of exposure, the pet’s owner would be charged with a misdemeanor for animal cruelty. If the city’s prosecuting officer determines that the investigative report submitted constitutes a valid case, the compliant is filed with District Court. If the defendant pleads nolo or is found guilty by the court, the judge can order that the defendant not be allowed to live with any animal for up to five years if charged with a misdemeanor or up to 15 years for a felony conviction, says Finocchio.

Last year, John Holmes, Pawtucket’s Animal Control Officer, notes that his office responded to 44 calls to investigate alleged cases of animal cruelty, some resulting from a person leaving a pet outside in frigid weather. Although a few of the cases were unfounded, Holmes and his staff found in other instances that the pet owners needed to be educated about responsible pet ownership practices, along with state laws and city ordinances involving animals.

Holmes asks that all concerned neighbors who notice dogs being left outside in inclement weather to call his office at the City of Pawtucket’s Animal Shelter. “Each and every call is taken very seriously and checked out,” he warns. After an investigation, if it is found that someone knowingly abused or neglected an animal, that person will be prosecuted and held accountable for their actions

“We don’t in general see hypothermia in stray or feral cats,” notes Finocchio, stating that that these animals can usually seek out small places to stay warm, specifically under cars, sheds or porches or under the hoods of vehicles. .“They can usually get themselves out of harms way.”

Livestock animals with thick fur, including cows, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs, are able to withstand severe frigid temperatures, especially if they are healthy. “We often times get complaints from concerned people about livestock, especially horses standing in a pasture with an inch of snow on its back,” Finocchio says, noting that the caller fears that the animal is going to freeze to death. “But larger animals can handle the cold environment more than our small domestic pets.”

Just Use a Little Common Sense

Finocchio advises pet owners to just use common sense when it comes to protecting their pets from the cold weather. Don’t take elderly, young or sick pets, especially small short haired breeds outdoors unprotected in below zero weather. Just let them go out in the back yard for a few minutes if necessary.

If hypothermia does occur, Finocchio one of the state’s most visible animal advocates, recommends that the pet be brought inside. Do not submerge the pet in hot water. To warm up a pet, wrap the ailing animal in a thermal blanket [warm by placing in a dryer for a couple of minutes], use a heating pad, or wrap a towel with a hot bottle, around areas with less hair, specifically in the groin or belly areas, or arm pits, Consider placing the animal by a radiant heat appliance or roaring fire place. You can even take your pet and place in the footwall of the car and turn on the vehicle’s heater.

If the dog will drink, give it warm water.

However, if the animal’s internal temperature falls into the severe hypothermia range, go immediately to a veterinary emergency clinic where emergency treatment will be provided, he urges.
For dog owners who own large breed dogs (especially those with thick fur that can protect the animal from frigid weather), you can get permission from your veterinarian or animal control officer to keep the animal outside for over 10 hours and not violate state law.

So, why keep a small pet outside in extremely frigid temperatures that would result in hypothermia and lead to death? “It only takes common sense to protect your animal from hypothermia and keep it safe, nothing else,” say Finocchio.

If the weather is uncomfortable for you to be outside even when you are wearing layers of clothing, gloves and a hat, it becomes obvious that putting your pet outside as the temperature dips well into the teens, will be detrimental to the health and well-being of your pet.

For more information about hypothermia, contact the RISPCA call, Dr, E.J. Finocchio, D.V.M, at 401 438-8150. Or write 186 Amaral Street, East Providence, RI 02915. Web site:

To report a complaint about alleged animal cruelty:

City of Pawtucket, contact John Holmes, Animal Control Supervisor, at 401 722-4243. Or write Animal Control Division, 121 Roosevelt Avenue, Pawtucket, RI 0286. Web site:

City of Woonsocket, contact Animal Control Officer Glen Thuot, at 401 766-6571. Or write: Woonsocket Animal Shelter, 242 Clinton Street, Woonsocket, RI 02895. Website:

The RISPCA and the two City’s Animal Shelter gratefully accept donations.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer that covers medical, aging and health care issues. He can be reached at


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