img 3749 1

Frostbite Bites

By Kimberly Everson, DVM

With blizzard conditions followed by sub-zero temperatures recently, my dogs have been refusing to spend more than a few seconds outside to toilet. As I shove them out the door, the dogs deliver a dirty look worthy of a “put out” teenager. If they empty their bladders before rushing back to the door, I’m satisfied. Needless to say I’ve had to clean up a few stool “accidents” the last few days. Even our veteran indoor-outdoor farm cat Jimi knows better than to venture outside. He has made it into the attached garage a few times, but quickly slinks back into the house to find a cozy spot to wait out the arctic blast.

Sadly, not all animals have this sense of self preservation in the frigid temperatures. Juveniles with no prior experience of winter seem especially at risk.

This past week a client brought in their five-month-old kitten who had snuck outside in the evening and could not be found. In the morning, the kitten (we’ll call him Olaf) was found frozen to the ground! Warm water was used to detach his frozen feet from the ground. After giving him a chance to warm up, Olaf’s family noticed that his feet were swollen and he was having a hard time walking.

20240116 113955 1
Day 1: Olaf’s rear paws up to his ankles (hocks) are very swollen and painful.

On examination, I noticed that Olaf’s right ear was quite red and slightly puffy and sensitive to the touch. His tail hung limply and he was clearly in pain, not wanting to put any weight on his feet. His front feet looked pretty normal but several of the pads had minor injuries from where they had been stuck to the ice. The most dramatic finding were his hind feet, which were extremely swollen all the way from his toes to his ankles.

20240116 114245
Day 1: Olaf’s right ear is red and swollen.

Frostbite in animals is a lot like frostbite in people. Extremities like ears, fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, and chin are affected first because these areas have less insulation and blood flow. Ice crystals form in these tissues faster than in other areas of the body, and it is the ice crystals that cause much of the damage from frostbite.

Symptoms of frostbite in people apply to animals as well. The skin becomes tingly and eventually becomes numb (making prolonged exposure more dangerous because you don’t recognize the damage being done). The appearance of the exposed skin changes as well. Depending on the severity of frostbite and the skin’s natural tone, the skin may look very pale or bluish or it may turn red, purple or brown. The surface of the skin may turn hard and waxy, shiny and smooth or cracked and bumpy. Blisters can form especially as the skin is warmed. In severe cases or deep frostbite, the joints and muscles can become stiff making it hard to move.

img 3743
Day 1: Olaf loves his pain medications!

When the wind chill is −15 F, frostbite can occur in as little as 30 minutes. While frostbite in adult cats and dogs is rare, a frequently reported scenario is finding kittens frozen to snowbanks and other surfaces in frigid weather.

First aid includes

  • use warm water (not too hot to avoid thermal burns) to remove the animal from the surface
  • bathe the animal in water 98.6-113 F for 20 minutes or until thawing is complete; do not use dry heat (such as a hairdryer)
  • place the animal on well-padded soft bedding and handle carefully because pain may cause the animal to react aggressively
  • do not massage or rub the affected areas
  • seek veterinary care for appropriate pain and wound management therapies
  • avoid re-exposure to the cold following frost bite because repeated freeze-thaw worsens tissue injury
img 3749 1
Day 2: Olaf’s right ear tip has curled.

In Olaf’s case, we applied a long-acting pain reliever and treated with anti-inflammatory and antibiotic. We also treated his rear paws with therapeutic laser which reduces inflammation and pain and supports circulation. He went home for continued supportive care including a highly nutritious diet and containment to a small space with easy access to his litterbox and food and water.

img 3750
Day 2: The edema in Olaf’s paws has been leaking out as serum leaving crusty fur, but the swelling IS going down!

Olaf’s owners report that he is feeling good, almost as if nothing had happened. Our plan is to continue supportive care and laser therapy on his feet for several days as we monitor his condition. The majority of tissue damage becomes evident within 3-4 days of the frostbite injury. In the worst cases of frostbite, the injured tissue dies and falls off or requires surgical amputation.

We are hopeful that Olaf makes a full recovery. He has a positive spirit and the good care of his family on his side. I do wonder, though, how many of his feline nine lives he have used up in one go!

Here are some additional cold weather tips for keeping companion animals safe this winter

Even with nature’s gift of a fur coat, outdoor animals can greatly benefit from human help in other ways to make winter more comfortable.

  • Provide appropriate shelter against wind and moisture. Arctic winds combined with rain and snow can lead to dangerous hypothermia and frostbite. A shelter with southern exposure for solar warmth and a doorway opposite the prevailing winds is ideal. Bedding should be thick, clean and dry. Blankets that start out soft and fluffy often become damp, matted and frozen. Heaps of clean straw work well for bedding. Avoid cedar chips because the aromatic oils in the wood are harsh to the respiratory tract.
  • Cats are attracted to the warmth of car and machinery engines. Check beneath the vehicle, honk the horn, or rap on the hood before starting the engine because an animal can be seriously, if not fatally, injured when the vehicle is started.
  • The fur between footpads on shaggy dogs often collects rock salt and ice. Check for and remove clumps of icy snow stuck to the fur between toes, or your dog will chew it out by itself potentially leading to injury and/or toxicity. Pet-safe ice melt is available to reduce risk of poisoning if an animal eats the salt off the ground or by licking its fur.
  • If clean, unfrozen water is not readily available pets are more likely to drink out of puddles or gutters. This puts animals at risk of poisoning from antifreeze, household chemicals, and other pollutants. Animals that drink from standing, stagnant water sources can develop bacterial and parasitic gastrointestinal infections as well. Heated water bowls and buckets are available to keep water sources from freezing.
  • Animals with serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart and kidney disease, and hormone imbalances as well as geriatric pets should be kept indoors even if they previously spent winters outside. This is because ill, elderly and very young animals have decreased ability to maintain their body heat.
Dr. Kim’s springer pup enjoying a winter wonderland

While animals in the northern hemisphere have evolved effective adaptations and defense mechanisms against harsh winter weather, there are some important exceptions. It takes months to acclimatize to winter weather by producing an adequate coat and fat stores. Therefore an indoor pet should never be suddenly turned outside for extended periods. Indeed, some canine and feline breeds are definitely NOT suited for an arctic lifestyle regardless of their health status and winter conditioning. For example, the Chihuahua dog or hairless Sphynx cat are simply not adapted to thrive in the cold and should be dressed appropriately when taken outside even for short periods of time.

With proper winter preparations on your part and their built-in adaptations to cold, outdoor dogs and cats can enjoy a comfortable and safe winter wonderland this year.

Similar Posts

One Comment

  1. When we were new to our farm, we found a small cat with a newly amputated tail in our garage on Cristmas Eve. Chrissy Kitty and her kittens were beloved members of our warm barn family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *