Frostbite in Cats and Dogs by Dr. Chantal Rittwage

Frostbite (aka congelation) is the skin and tissue damage caused by exposure to extreme and/or prolonged cold temperatures. This is something we should all be aware of as Atlantic Canadians, and should avoid going out in the extreme cold weather for too long with our pets.

How Does The Cold Cause So Much Damage?

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.

What Areas Are Most Susceptible?

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.

What Are The Symptoms?

  • Pale, grey, or bluish discoloration of the affected skin
  • Cold and brittle when touched
  • Painful to the touch
  • Once starting to thaw will become red and swollen
  • May blister or form ulcers eventually (sometimes days later)
  • If severe, the affected areas may become black (dead) and slough off several days later. This dead skin is extremely susceptible to infection and may develop pus or a foul smell.

What Can I Do?

If you think your pet has frostbite, you will need immediate veterinary care. But, here are some first-aid tips you can start until you get there:

  • Move your pet to a warm, dry area as quickly and safely as possible.
  • If your pet has been exposed to cold for a very long time, there is a chance they could be suffering from hypothermia. This should be addressed first. Wrap its body in warm dry towels or blankets (heated up in the dryer) and place hot water bottles wrapped in towels near its body.
  • DO NOT rub or massage affected areas
  • If you are still outdoors, DO NOT attempt to warm the frostbitten areas (refreezing will cause more damage).
  • Carefully warm the affected area with warm (40-42C) water, then pat dry carefully.
  • While travelling to the vet, keep your pet wrapped in a warm dry towel or blankets.
  • DO NOT give any pain medications unless instructed by your vet.

What Will My Vet Do?

Treatment begins with a full physical examination to ensure there are no other more life threatening conditions (ie: shock or hypothermia), and if so, treat those first. Your pet will likely receive pain medications and antibiotics to prevent infection if tissue death is suspected. If very severely affected, sometimes amputation is necessary.

The majority of the time, this condition is preventable. The exception being dog and cats who run away and are forced to spend the night outdoors in the winter. Be careful with short-haired dogs and cats and limit the length of walks outside when the temperatures dip below 0C (especially the windshield). Dogs who have little fur between their toes may benefit from insulated winter booties if going for long hicks. Snow is actually insulating, so when walking dogs on very cold days, avoid walking on exposed sidewalks and roads. If you pets show signs of discomfort (shifting from paw-to-paw), it’s time to cut the walk short.