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Frostbite is a condition that can occur in any animal as a result of exposure to freezing or subfreezing temperatures. It most commonly affects the tips of the ears, the tail, the scrotum and the feet (especially the toes).

  Dog Poodle in Snowy Weather
  Read our Cold Weather Pet Care Tips to get more advice on preventing frostbite, hypothermia and other cold weather conditions that can be life threatening to your pet.

How does frostbite occur? 

Blood flowing through the vessels not only supplies oxygen nutrients to tissues, it also provides heat. If a portion of the body, such as an ear, becomes very cold, the blood vessels in that area constrict (become smaller) to help the body conserve heat. The tissues of the ear then have even less blood supply and can eventually become as cold as the surrounding temperatures.

If your pet is on heart medications (e.g., beta-blockers) or has certain medical conditions (e.g., diabetes) the risk of frostbite may be increased. The risk is also increased in conditions that are very cold and windy, or if the animal was wet.

What are the signs of frostbite? 

Initially frostbitten tissue may appear pale or gray in color. As the area thaws, it may become red. In severe frostbite, within several days the tissue will start to appear black or dark green in color and will eventually slough over the course of several weeks. The tissue at this point will generally not be painful. However, as the tissue warms, frostbite becomes very painful. When it becomes painful you may notice your cat or dog chewing on the affected area.

What should I do if I suspect my pet is frostbitten? 

  • Warm the affected area rapidly with warm (NEVER HOT) water. Do NOT use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer.
  • Do not rub or massage the affected area.
  • Contact us or an animal emergency clinic and have your pet examined immediately. Wrap your pet in a warm dry towel or blanket to keep them warm during your travel to the veterinarian.
  • Do not give any medication for pain unless instructed to do so by a veterinarian. Many human pain relievers can be toxic to pets.

How will the veterinarian treat my pet? 

  • We will examine your pet to determine the extent of the injury, although it may take several days to determine how much of the tissue has actually died.
  • Antibiotics may be started to prevent secondary infection and pain relief medication may also be given.
  • Animals suffering from frostbite often have hypothermia as well. This will also be assessed and treated.
  • In severe cases in which a large amount of tissue has died, it may be necessary to amputate the affected area.