Frostbite in Cats and Dogs

Snow and cold can be just as difficult for our furry friends as it can be for us! “Frostbite” refers to the damage of body tissue that has been exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period of time. In addition to hypothermia (low body temperature), all warm-blooded creatures—including dogs and cats—can fall victim to the damaging effects of frostbite when exposed to low temperatures.

In cats and dogs, the feet, tail, and ears are at highest risk for injury because of reduced blood flow to those parts of the body. When a dog or cat becomes cold, the body reduces its flow of blood to the extremities; this is the body’s way of protecting the main internal organs by conserving blood for their use. Although generally not life-threatening on its own, frostbite can result in scarring, infection, and, in worst cases, the need for amputation of the affected area(s).

Not always immediately detectable, it can sometimes take several days before signs of frostbite are noticeable. It is very important to keep an eye out for any detectable pain, discoloration, swelling, blistering, and/or sloughing (peeling) of the skin on the feet, tail, and ears. If any of these signs are present, you should contact your veterinarian for further treatment. Redness following rewarming is normal, but if the areas become darker, instead, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

If your pet has been exposed to extremely low temperatures and frostbite is a possibility, you should contact your veterinarian immediately. Treatment for minor frostbite includes slowly warming up your pet by gently applying warm (not hot) towels or blankets to the affected areas of her body, taking care not to rub or squeeze hard. Additionally, your veterinarian mayrecommend placing affected body parts in lukewarm water to rewarm the areas, as well.

Reducing the risk of frostbite is easy! Be sure to never leave your pet unattended for long periods of time, especially when outdoors in the coldest months.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Causes of Frostbite in Cats

Ultimately, frostbite is caused by exposure to temperatures below 0 centigrade (37 Fahrenheit). Those cats which are most vulnerable are those without shelter, are sick and debilitated, or are suffering from conditions such as diabetes or heart disease which impair circulation.

Wind chill or a wet coat can significantly increase the risk of frostbite, and the longer the cat is exposed to low temperatures the greater the risk. Another factor is direct contact with metallic objects, which can become extremely cold.

Frostbite in pets

Believe it or not, but frostbite occurs relatively frequently in cats and dogs. We assume that their beautiful coats are enough to keep them warm when temperatures plummet, but just like you and me, they have exposed extremities that we need to consider.

The most common areas cats suffer from frostbite on are their tails, ears and feet. In dogs, we have to worry about their ears, tails, feet and external genitalia (especially the scrotum in male dogs).

Frostbite occurs with prolonged exposure to cold temperatures and/or submersion in cold water. With the temperatures dropping below zero in many areas recently, more than a few minutes outside can be enough to qualify as prolonged exposure.

In other words, being outside for longer than it takes to do one’s business can be enough cold exposure to result in frostbite. This can make it especially tough for those animals who enjoy a nice long walk before eliminating, because it just isn’t safe to be outside for too long when the temperatures are this cold.

The body mechanism that causes frostbite actually begins as a lifesaving process. When exposed to cold, the body tried to keep the core temperature elevated by shunting the blood to the internal organs. However, if this goes on for too long, it can reduce the blood flow to these extremities to a critically low level causing tissues to freeze and potentially die.

Paws, ears, and tails. Especially when wet or damp. Animals with conditions that cause reduced blood flow (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) have a higher risk of frostbite.

The paws, ears, and tail are the most common areas to be affected by frostbite. A warm dog jacket or sweater and dog booties will help minimize the risk, especially for short-coated breeds or older, more fragile dogs. However, clothing for your dog should never be used on an unattended dog or as a substitute for proper care, but rather as an adjunct. In general, it is safer for pets to be in an area where temperatures can be controlled.

Make sure your dog is dry before taking them out for a walk. If a dog is wet or damp, these areas are more vulnerable to frostbite.

Keep winter walks short when possible. A dog can start developing frostbite in as little as 30 minutes.

When in doubt, always consult your veterinarian.