Can Dogs and Cats Get Frostbite?

January 20, 2014

By Linda Cole

Winters can be really snowy and cold in my neck of the woods, making it hard for humans and animals to get around. My dogs do fine when we’re outside, provided their time in the snow and cold is limited. But in extreme cold, it takes only a few minutes before they’re limping back with very cold feet. I’ve had occasions where I’ve had to pick one up and carry her back inside. It’s important to keep a close eye on pets during the winter months because they can get frostbite on their feet, ears, tail and nose.

Some dog and cat breeds have a warm coat that provides them with good protection from harsh weather. The Norwegian Forest Cat and Maine Coon Cat developed naturally on their own, adapting to weather conditions to survive. Northern dogs were bred to work in extreme weather conditions. They needed to be tough because human lives depended on their ability to handle snow and cold. However, even pets with double coats can feel the effects of the cold and are at risk of frostbite, especially inside pets that aren’t acclimated to the colder temperatures.

A pet is at risk of frostbite when the temperature drops to 32º F and below. When exposed to the cold for too long, the body begins a process of survival. Blood vessels closest to the skin begin to constrict and push blood to the core to protect vital organs like the heart and liver. The longer the body is exposed to the cold, blood flow at the extremities can become so low it can’t protect these areas from freezing, which results in tissue damage. These are the areas of the body farthest from the heart with little to no hair covering them. The tip of the tail, ears, paw pads and toes are the most common areas affected, but dogs and cats can get frostbite on their nose, too.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

• A pale, gray or blueish discoloration of the affected area
• Ice on the affected area
• Shivering
• The affected area feels cold or brittle to the touch
• Painful when touched
• Swelling
• Blisters
• Blackened skin

You might not be aware your pet has developed frostbite until a few days later. The tip of the tail and ears don’t carry any weight and since the affected area is smaller, it can be harder to notice damaged tissue. As the frostbitten tissue begins to thaw, it will sometimes turn red and become painful because of inflammation. A black or dark blue color means the tissue is dying.

What to do to treat frostbite:

• If your pet has prolonged exposure and is suffering frostbite, he likely is also experiencing hypothermia. It’s imperative to treat the hypothermia first by getting him inside where it’s warm. Wrap him in dry towels or blankets. You can put hot water bottles wrapped in towels near his body.
• To treat the frostbite, carefully warm the area with warm water, 104 – 108 degrees. If the water is too hot, it can cause more damage. You can apply warm compresses or soak the area in a bowl of warm water.
• Pat the area dry, making sure to dry it carefully and completely
• Wrap your pet in dry blankets or towels that have not been warmed in the dryer.

You should now be on your way to your vet. Treatment will depend on the severity of the frostbite.

What not to do if your pet is affected with frostbite:

• Do not use hot water to treat the area.
• Do not place hot water bottles or heating pads on bare skin.
• Do not use a hair dryer or heating pad to warm the affected area.
• Do not rub the area.
• Do not attempt to thaw out the affected area while still outside. Warming and refreezing will likely cause more damage. If you can’t get the area warm and keep it that way, don’t even try to thaw it out.
• Do not put the pet in a bath; it can cause body temperature to drop.
• Do not give your pet any medication or pain relievers unless instructed by your vet.

The best way to prevent frostbite and hypothermia is to make sure to monitor your pet when they are outside in extreme temperatures. Outside cats and dogs should be brought inside until the temperature rises, especially in extreme cold. If you see your pet shivering, that’s a sure sign they are cold and it’s time for some warm inside games to get rid of winter’s chill.

Top photo by Mike Tungate
Middle photo by Daisyreebakker
Bottom photo by Pauly March

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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