What is a Heating Pad?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A heating pad is a piece of equipment which is designed to produce radiant heat. Heating pads are often used in medicine for things like keeping newborn infants warm or increasing the flow of blood to a damaged area of the body. People also like to use heating pads for pain management, or simply to increase their comfort in cold weather. A wide variety of heating pads can be found on the market, from specialized pads with temperature sensors and computerized timing systems to basic heating pads which simply plug in and turn on.

Some reusable heating pads can be warmed in a microwave.
Some reusable heating pads can be warmed in a microwave.

In medicine, heating pads have a wide range of uses. During surgery on both humans and animals, for example, a heating pad may be used to compensate for the cool temperatures which prevail in operating rooms. Heating pads also increase perfusion, the healthy circulation of blood to the extremities of the body. Veterinarians may use heating pads for the comfort of their clients while they rest or recover in holding cages, and a heating pad can also be used in an incubator for young humans or animals to provide gentle heat.

Heating pads may be used in an incubator to keep babies warm.
Heating pads may be used in an incubator to keep babies warm.

At home, people use heating pads to warm beds in the winter, and more high powered versions may be used to help keep foods warm on the table. Some companies make heating pads which are specifically designed to slip over mattresses for the purpose of warming beds in the winter, and such pads are also used by massage therapists to make their massage tables more comfortable. Some individuals also use heating pads for at home pain management, often in a form which can be worn around the house.

An electrical heating pad has elements which heat up when the pad is plugged in and turned on. The heat may be adjustable with a thermostat, or fixed. Many companies also make chemical heating pads which rely on a chemical reaction to heat; these are often included in first aid kits for quick heat in emergency situations. People can also purchase or make their own reusable heating pads intended for warming in microwaves and ovens. These heating pads are made from insulating material filled with something like sand, grain, or beans which will hold heat.

Whatever a heating pad is being used for, the use should be closely monitored, since heating pads can cause burns or fires. If you are using a heating pad at home for pain management and you have not consulted a doctor, you may want to seek medical attention if the pain persists or becomes worse. Never leave an electric heating pad plugged in unattended, and always test a heating pad on the inside of your wrist before applying it; this sensitive skin will register dangerously high temperatures which could cause a burn.

An electric heating pad features heating elements wrapped inside a quilted cloth with adjustable temperatures.
An electric heating pad features heating elements wrapped inside a quilted cloth with adjustable temperatures.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


There are pads that are designed to reflect body heat and are not powered by electricity or batteries. This may be the best solution. Cats will move on their own if they are too warm.


My cat was badly burnt by a heat pad during a vet stay - the burns did not show themselves for over a week, and it is going to take him months to recover and he may need skin grafts. They have admitted liability and I am going to sue them for negligence.


What is the value of sand in the heating pad, besides holding the heat? Does it in any way reduce the bad effects of electricity on the body? I'm looking for an alternative if not.


If you're going to use a heating pad for your cat, get one specifically designed for cats. When not in use, they cool down to about 2-3 degrees above the average room temp, that way it uses less power, but still attracts your cat. When the cat lies on it, it then warms to a cat safe level, I think the max is 90 degrees.

A standard heating pad with low, med, high settings designed for a human, even set on low is too hot and can cause fur loss. Burns show up on the skin immediately but they're covered by fur so you won't see them.

The more severe the burn, the faster the fur is lost.


Aha! I've been taking my cat to the vet for six months over these bald spots on her stomach. He thought allergies (so we did Frontline for three months, despite not seeing a speck of flea dirt (and I was looking) or excessive grooming. (My cat's not a big groomer. She thinks that's my job.

But the balding pattern wasn't consistent with licking -- instead it seemed to follow her skin folds -- long narrow streaks eventually widening.

So I'm with you: I'm thinking it's the heating pad. We live in Northern California, no central heat, and giving her a heating pad seemed like a better alternative than heating the house while I'm at work. Guess I need a new solution.

She gets really unhappy when she's cold. She's older and already suffers from chronic congestion - remnants of a youth spent in shelters and in the wild. Thanks for your post.


I think the heating pad is the problem.

Last winter my cat lost fur in a couple of spots on her underside - a large spot under one of her front legs and a spot on her tummy. The spot under her leg also had a small sore. The vet thought it was an allergic reaction to something she had come in contact with, maybe even her food (may develop allergies over time).

At the time I could not think of something new she had come in contact with, even though she had begun sleeping on a heating pad at least a month before I began to notice the hair loss. Anyway the vet treated her with a shot for allergic reactions and I used a topical prescription spritz (Betagen).

At the time, the doctor felt the sore was a result from my cat licking her bare skin with her rough tongue. Well, about this time it was spring, and I put the heating pad away and the sore healed, the fur grew back and did not return, until now.

Now it is the following November and my cat has been using her heating pad for about a month or 1.5 months, and last week I noticed that she was once again losing her fur under her leg and the same type of sore has reoccurred. I am quite certain now that it is related to the heating pad. I have not taken her back to the vet, but I have used the Betagen again, and she is wearing a t-shirt so she doesn't lick the spot. The sore is healing and the bare skin is now a pale pink again - it had been bright pink (as was the case last year).

I don't know if it is actually a burn. It may be that the pad is not hot enough to burn, but with prolonged use, causes "hot spots" and the cat licks herself in those spots causing her to lose her fur and then continues to lick to create the sore? I don't know. But I do think it is related to the heating pad.


Hi does anyone know how long it would take for a burn to show up on a cat? 2 weeks after an operation my cat is losing fur and flesh on a shoulder where a heating pad was used. Vets are thinking it wasn't the pad as surely a burn would show up earlier?

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