Last reviewed on November 10, 2015
I had to spend a chunk of time at my horse’s barn this morning and it was FREEZING. The temperature wasn’t all that bad (high teens, I think), but the wind was howling and the snow was travelling horizontally. I’ve been inside for hours now and I’m still cold.
This experience brought to mind an appointment that I had with a newly adopted cat a while back. His owners asked me about his ears. They thought he might be an exotic breed like a Scottish Fold. I told them that I thought it was more likely that he had suffered from frostbite as a youngster. They had lots of questions about frostbite in pets, so I thought I’d share some information on the condition as winter revs up into full gear in my part of the world.
Frostbite is the damage that is caused when tissues, which are made mostly of water, are exposed to very cold temperatures. Water expands when it freezes, so ice crystals can potentially cause irreparable damage to cells. Under normal circumstances, a mammal or bird’s circulatory system and ability to generate heat will prevent frostbite. But when external temperatures are very low and/or the core body temperature starts to drop, frostbite becomes more likely. In the latter case, the body attempts to keep itself warm by shunting blood away from the expendable parts, like foot pads, the scrotum, the tail, and ear tips. This process can save an animal’s life but increases the chances that it will lose one or more appendages.
What does frostbite look like? In its early stages, affected tissues are often grey, hard, and extremely cold to the touch. As the body begins to warm, some areas may become red, swollen, and very painful, but the most seriously damaged parts will continue to appear lifeless. The only way to know which tissues might survive and which will not is to give the body time to repair what it can. Medical treatment for frostbite includes warming, antibiotics to prevent infection in damaged tissues, aggressive pain relief, and sometimes drugs that might increase the ability of blood to reach affected areas. Once it becomes clear that a particular tissue is not going to recover (it usually turns black and begins to slough), it should be surgically removed.
If you come across an animal that you suspect might be suffering from frostbite, concentrate your initial efforts on raising its core body temperature, since it is also probably hypothermic. Surround the patient with hot (but not too hot) water bottles, cover it with multiple blankets, and get it to the veterinary clinic ASAP. Do not rub or use hair dryers and heating pads on potentially damaged tissues.
Of course, frostbite is best prevented. Protect your pets by keeping them indoors or providing adequate shelter when temperatures become dangerously cold. The cut off for cold tolerance will vary with an animal’s coat type, age, and overall health, as well as environmental conditions like dampness and wind speed, but common sense should tell you when you need to intervene.
Dr. Jennifer Coates