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Frostbite in Dogs and Cats: How to Handle it, How to Prevent It

Keeping Your Pets Safe in Cold Weather

By Sora Wondra. December 30, 2013 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian

    DVM

A Dog And Cat Sittting Outside In The Snow

Winter can be a brutal time of year for pets who enjoy spending time outdoors. Frostbite is not only painful, but potentially fatal as well. Here are some helpful tips on how to keep your pet safe during those cold months.

As it gets colder, it's important to think about how frostbite can affect your pet. Despite their fur coats, when a cat or dog is exposed to extreme cold for a long period of time, the risk of frostbite or hypothermia is high. Smaller dogs and cats are at even greater risk.

Causes of Frostbite

Frostbite in dogs and cats is caused by the constricting of blood vessels and formation of ice crystals in the skin. Under very cold conditions, the body will reduce blood flow to extremities (in a pet’s case, especially ears, nose and tail) to keep the rest of the body and organs warm. Over time, this can damage or kill skin cells.

Frostbite usually occurs when dogs or cats are left out in extreme cold for long periods of time, but wet skin and wind can compound these problems. Getting wet or being exposed to wind can cause frostbite even in moderately cold conditions.

Symptoms of Frostbite

If your dog or cat has been out in the cold for more than a few minutes, you should check for symptoms of frostbite, especially on the ears, nose, toes, scrotum, and tail, or any injured areas.

  • Frostbitten skin will be hard, cold, and appear pale or grey-blueish white. The skin may have attached ice.
  • Once the skin starts to thaw, it will become painful for your pet. The skin will often turn red, swell, and may also blister or peel.
  • If the skin turns dark or black, instead of red, seek emergency attention, as this is the sign of dead tissue, which will need to be removed.

Treatment Steps

If you suspect your dog or cat has frostbite, you should take steps to warm the skin, but only if you know you can keep it warm—re-freezing can cause more damage.

  1. Bring your pet into a warm, dry place.
  2. Warm a towel in the dryer and wrap it around your pet.
  3. Warm up the frostbitten area with warm (not hot) water and warm compresses. Don't use any direct heat, such as a hairdryer or heating pad.
  4. Dry them off gently with blotting. Avoid any rubbing or massaging which can irritate or damage the skin.
  5. Contact your veterinarian for immediate examination.

Your vet will examine the damaged tissues and likely prescribe pain relief medication and antibiotics to treat any possible secondary infection. In days after the frostbite, the affected skin will be painful and itchy but it's important to keep your dog or cat from licking or scratching, which could further damage the skin. An e-collar may be necessary to protect the area. In extreme cases, the area may turn dark and require emergency surgical removal to avoid infection of surrounding tissue.

Preventing Frostbite

You can prevent frostbite by limiting time spent outside in the winter or cold and wet days of spring and fall. Even “outside dogs” should have access to a warm and dry shelter, out of the wind. You can also help keep your dog warm with sweaters, or protect their toes with boots if you know they will be out for a long walk in the cold.

More on Pets And Cold Weather

Hypothermia in Dogs and Cats
Can Dogs Get Colds? And Other Winter Questions Answered
7 Ways to Exercise Your Dog in Cold Weather

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Frostbite at a glance

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  • 1All dogs are vulnerable to the cold, but smaller pets are at higher risk.
  • 2Damaged skin will appear pale and white. Avoid rubbing, irritating, or re-exposing it.
  • 3Dry your pet and slowly warm them. Re-warming of frozen skin can be painful.
  • 4Seek veterinary attention after an instance of frostbite, especially if you see dark patches of skin.