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Hypothermia in Small Mammals

By: PetPlace Veterinarians

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When the skin or blood is cooled enough to lower the body temperature below normal, a state of hypothermia results. In hypothermia, metabolic and physiologic processes slow, respiration and heart rate are slow, blood pressure is low, and there is loss of consciousness. If left untreated, affected animals may die.

Exposure to cold weather is the most common cause of hypothermia. In addition, impaired ability to regulate body temperature can also lead to hypothermia. This is most often associated with newborns and older debilitated animals.

Certain illnesses can increase the risk of hypothermia. Impaired behavioral responses can also be a factor in the body's inability to maintain adequate temperature.

Signs of hypothermia range from mild to severe, depending on the severity of the low body temperature.

What to Watch For

  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Shivering
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Low heart and respiratory rates
  • Stupor
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fixed and dilated pupils
  • Coma

    Diagnosis

    Recording a low body temperature with a thermometer will confirm the diagnosis of hypothermia. In certain situations, additional diagnostics may be carried out to identify an underlying cause. Usually, these tests are performed in ferrets and rabbits, rarely in the smaller pets.

  • Baseline diagnostics to include a complete blood count, biochemical profile, and urinalysis are generally within normal limits

  • An electrocardiogram may show an array of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)

    Treatment

    It is important to monitor the patient's temperature closely during the treatment period.

  • Mild hypothermia can be treated with blankets and insulation.

  • Moderate hypothermia should be treated with external rewarming heat sources such as heating pads. Protective layers should always exist between the external heat source and the individual in order to prevent skin burns.

  • Severe hypothermia often needs to be treated aggressively. Core warming techniques include warm water enemas and stomach lavage (washing out), warm intravenous fluid therapy and warmed air. These treatments may not be possible in smaller pets.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Sick or hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) newborns can become markedly hypothermic in a normal environment. It is important to keep these individuals warm, and possibly even monitor their rectal temperature.

    If you are suspicious that your pet may be suffering from hypothermia, contact your veterinarian at once. In the interim, use blankets and insulation to start the rewarming process.

    Preventing hypothermia is key. Do not leave your pet in freezing temperature without access to warmth for any length of time.

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