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Frostbite in Cats

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Frostbite is injury to tissue that occurs when an animal is exposed to freezing temperatures accompanied by high winds. The primary areas that are affected include the feet, tail and tips of the ears.

The body responds to exposure to cold temperatures by reducing blood flow to the outer parts of the body. This preserves blood flow to the vital internal organs. The diversion of blood increases the chances frostbite in the ears, tail and toes. Without proper blood flow, these body parts are lacking in oxygen and warmth. Ice crystals can form in the body tissues, which can result in tissue death.

Unfortunately, frostbite injury is not immediately apparent. It may take several days before you notice the signs of frostbite injury.

What to Watch For

  • Skin discoloration on the ears, tail and toes
  • Pain and swelling
  • Blisters
  • Sloughing of skin
  • Skin ulcers

    Diagnosis

    Diagnosis of frostbite is based on a history of exposure to freezing temperatures and location and type of skin injury.

    Treatment

    Initially, remove the cat from the freezing environment and begin to slowly re-warm the affected tissues. Bandages may be applied to reduce damage to the tissues as they are re-warmed. Do not place the animal in hot water.

    Wounds may need to be cleaned. Your veterinarian will also provide antibiotic therapy and pain relief. In severe cases, amputation of the affected area may be required to prevent further infection and the development of gangrene.

    Home Care and Prevention

    Removing the cat from the freezing environment is crucial. Re-warm the affected tissues in warm water (about 104 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 20 minutes, but do not rub or massage the affected areas. This can cause significant damage to the frostbitten tissues. After initial treatment, call your veterinarian for treatment to prevent infection and treat for pain.

    To prevent frostbite, keep your cat protected from prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. Limit the amount of time you allow your cat outdoors. Once indoors, keep your cat warm. Pay particular attention to the ears, tail and feet.

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