Do cats shiver when they are cold?

The question seems simplistic and the answer obvious but I have never seen my cat shiver even when outside in very cold temperatures. Perhaps the fact that the domestic cat is well protected against the cold with their fur coat is a reason why they shiver infrequently.

For the true feral cat matters will often be entirely different because there are many occasions in many places where they will be tremendously cold but it is my view that domestic and feral cats are more emotionally tolerant of extreme temperatures both hot and cold.

Stray ginger tabby survives Quebec winter and comes in from the cold
Stray ginger tabby survives Quebec winter and comes in from the cold. Photo: Un Chat à la Fois – a cat rescue.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Certainly, the domestic cat is better able to tolerate higher temperatures than people because they are, after all, a domesticated North Africa wildcat which means their ancestors evolved to tolerate those high, desert temperatures.

It is said that cats will start to become uncomfortable at temperatures of around 52°C which is nearly 10°C higher than the temperature at which humans feel too hot.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen several instances online of domestic and feral cats developing frostbite. On one occasion the story reported that the rescued cat’s paws were frozen solid into the ground. They couldn’t move. The cat concerned was saved through the amputation of their paws due to frostbite.

The story got me thinking that domestic cats are more able to tolerate the cold. To me, it is a method of processing the cold. They probably feel cold as we do but their brain processes the signal via their nerves differently and are better able to tolerate it which might lead them to being more predisposed to frostbite that humans particularly as there are many feral cats living under conditions where the ambient temperature is below freezing point for a long time.

Russian cat with four false legs
Cat with four false legs due to frostbite. They lost their ear flaps too. Photo: Kirill Kukhmar/TASS).

We have to thank the volunteers who operate TNR programs who help to protect these cats by providing winter quarters; little hutches where they can stay warmer perhaps made from discarded vehicle tyres or old fridges or perhaps home-made kennels of sorts. There are a lot of volunteers to do this work and they deserve a pat on the back.

It should be added that when a domestic cat is exposed to cold environmental temperatures particularly when they get wet, it can result in hypothermia. Technically this is when their body temperature drops below 100°F. Bear in mind that domestic cats have a higher default body temperature than humans.

When a cat is at a stage when they might become hypothermic, they may shiver violently in order to generate warmth. Their ears and feet become noticeably colder as the blood flow to these areas is restricted/diverted in order to pump the blood to those more critical areas in order to survive. That’s how frostbite sets in.

If the shivering, hypothermic cat is not rescued and warmed up their heart rate and respiratory rate will slow and eventually they will slip into a coma.

Postscript: cat owners should not mix up tremors caused by a range of health conditions with shivering caused by cold ambient temperatures. There is a difference and they require different treatment for obvious reasons. Both are serious but tremors will be more serious and the cat will need veterinary treatment urgently quite possibly.

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