Frostbite in Cats: Symptoms and Treatment

Cats are particularly vulnerable to frostbite. A cat left out in extreme cold is at risk for frostbite especially in the ears, tail and paws. Here are the risks, symptoms and treatment of frostbite in cats.

Some cats are better adapted to cold outdoor weather. Maine Coons have the thick undercoat of their wild ancestors, a fluffy tail to cover the nose, and heavy hair growth in the ears to deflect cold and wind.

Short-haired cats such as Siamese or American Short Hair are less suited to extremes of weather. Any cat can develop frostbite if left outdoors in temperatures below 0°C (32°F) without adequate shelter.

About Frostbite

Frostbite happens when the body draws blood away from the extremities, in an effort to preserve its core temperature. Exposure to high winds can accelerate frostbite. The areas furthest from the heart, such as the feet, ears and tail, are most often affected. Male cats risk frostbite to the genitals.

Initially, the lack of blood flow and oxygen to the extremities causes the skin to freeze. This early stage of frostbite is known as frostnip. In advanced stages of frostbite, the deep tissues, muscles, tendons and nerves freeze as well, causing permanent damage.

Risk of Frostbite in Cats

The risk of frostbite is higher in:

  • short-haired cats
  • small or slim cats
  • kittens
  • wet cats
  • diabetic cats
  • indoor cats, not used to being outside
  • cats with infection or other health problems
  • cats on medication
  • malnourished or dehydrated cats
  • stray cats

Symptoms of Frostbite in Cats

Frostbite symptoms may not be obvious for several days after exposure. Symptoms of frostbite in cats include:

  • skin discoloration on the ears, tail, genitals and/or feet
  • pain – the cat may show signs of distress or bite at the painful area
  • swelling of the affected area
  • blisters – may be fluid-filled or blood-filled
  • ulcers or skin sores
  • sloughing of skin

In the early stages of frostbite, skin discoloration may be pale, reddish, grey or yellow. In more severe cases, skin may turn purplish or black. Blisters appear in the second degree of frostbite. Blood-filled blisters indicate the third degree.

If severe frostbite has set in, the cat’s tissues, blood vessels and muscles freeze. Affected areas may require surgery or amputation. For more details about the four degrees of frostbite, see Frostbite: Symptoms and Treatment.

Treatment of Frostbite in Cats

If frostbite is severe, or if the cat has an underlying medical condition, call the vet immediately. Mild cases of frostbite, such as frostnip, may be treated at home.

First Aid for Cats with Frostbite

A frostbitten cat may also suffer from hypothermia, in which the core body temperature drops. Symptoms of hypothermia include violent shivering, shallow breathing and pale or blue gums. The cat may be listless or unresponsive. If the cat has hypothermia, wrap the cat in a warm towel or blanket, and contact a vet immediately. See: Hypothermia in Cats: Symptoms and Treatment.

To treat frostbite in cats at home, warm the area(s) as quickly as possible, but be careful not to burn the cat. Wet cats can be carefully dried with a hair dryer set on low.

If giving first aid for hypothermia as well as frostbite, warm the cat slowly. Quick warming can be fatal to a hypothermic cat.

Never rub, massage or shake the cat’s frozen extremities. Stimulating the affected region causes more destruction to the tissues.

If possible, submerge the frozen area(s) in a warm water bath of 40-42°C (104-107.6°F). Don’t use hot water.

A warm compress is also effective. Ambient warmth such as a higher room temperature or body heat, or a towel warmed in the clothes dryer, can help thaw the frozen extremities.

The cat will experience pain as the area warms. Never give human pain medication to a cat. Even small doses of human medication can be toxic to cats.

If the cat is in pain, he/she may bite or scratch, even if the relationship with the owner is a trusting one. Take care to avoid injury while treating a frostbitten cat.

When treating frostbite in cats, be sure that the area won’t be re-exposed to freezing. Refreezing of frostbitten tissues can cause severe long-term damage.

Treatment of Advanced Frostbite in Cats

A frostbitten cat may show no obvious symptoms at first. The skin may be hard and waxy. Over a few days, blisters may develop on the skin. Don’t pop the blisters.

Fluid-filled blisters may ooze and turn black, but generally look worse than they are. Although the blisters heal by themselves in about four weeks, a visit to the vet is recommended.

Blood-filled blisters are much more serious, and indicate severe damage to the extremities. Take the cat to the vet immediately. Untreated, the cat can develop infections, and gangrene may set in. A foul odor in the blackened extremities is indicative of gangrene.

Infected extremities may have to be amputated, due to high risk of blood poisoning. At this point, the cat is very ill and could die without treatment.

Frostbite: Veterinary Treatment for Cats

In cases of frostnip, proper home care such as warming the affected areas is usually effective. The cat will recover with no long-term damage. It’s not necessary to see a vet unless the cat has hypothermia, or the cat shows no sign of recovery.

If frostbite has advanced, the cat should be examined by a vet for wound cleaning, and to determine the extent of damage. To avoid movement or injury, the frostbitten areas may be splinted or wrapped. The vet can prescribe antibiotics and pain-relieving medication, and will recommend the best course of after-care.

In some cases, the frostbitten extremities will lose sensation or develop hypersensitivity to heat and cold. In advanced frostbite, the cat may suffer nerve and muscle damage, and lose motor control in the affected areas.

Frostbite Prevention in Cats

Some cats love to go outside, regardless of the weather. Provide a shelter where the cat can return periodically to warm up, especially if wind chill is a factor. Don’t let the cat outdoors at night.

Keep sensitive cats indoors during cold snaps. Never let kittens out in the cold, as they’re more vulnerable to frostbite, and to getting lost, than adult cats. A short-haired cat may benefit from a kitty coat or other attire for felines, but most cats detest wearing clothing and will try to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Watch for the signs of frostbite, especially in the ears, tail and feet of the cat. If finding a stray or unknown cat with frostbite, contact the vet or animal shelter even if the frostbite is mild. The cat may have other medical conditions, or may resist treatment and try to bite or scratch.

Any cat who has suffered frostbite is more susceptible to frostbite in the future. Take extra care to provide the cat with shelter and warmth.

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