Frostbite results from prolonged exposure to severe cold. Fortunately this doesn’t happen too often to the average house cat. Even though cats have a thick fur coat, the tips of the ears, nose, tail, and toes, or any area where the hair is thin is susceptible to frostbite. If your cat gets frostbite, she most likely also has hypothermia. Any area that suffers frostbite may be lost if not treated immediately.
What to Watch For
Affected areas will be pale to bluish white in color and much cooler to the touch than surrounding skin. This is due to loss of circulation to the area, brought on by the cold. If the circulation returns, the affected area will be red and swollen, sometimes with a distinct line between the healthy and damaged areas. Usually the area does not become painful until the circulation returns.
Frostbite is caused by prolonged exposure to severe cold. This usually happens from being outside in cold weather for a long period without shelter.
- Warm the skin and stimulate the return of circulation to the affected area with warm (not hot), moist heat. This can be accomplished by immersing the area in warm water for 15 to 30 minutes, or applying a warm moist towel to the area.
- DO NOT rub the area as it will cause more damage.
- As the circulation returns, the skin will redden.
- Apply aloe vera to the skin.
- If any of the red areas start turning dark, it is a sign of severe tissue damage and your cat should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Diagnosis is based on physical examination and your cat’s history of exposure to cold.
Initial treatment is to warm the tissue and restore circulation as already described. If it appears that normal circulation is returning, your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication or antibiotics. If the circulation is not returning, as determined by the tissue turning dark in color instead of red, your vet may attempt additional measures to improve circulation. However, these areas are usually dead or dying tissue and will need to be surgically removed.
Living and Management
It may take several days for evidence of dying tissue to become apparent, so inspect the affected areas at least once a day for darkening of the skin. As the areas of frostbite heal, they will probably become uncomfortable or itchy to your cat. It is important to keep your cat from licking, chewing, or scratching the area. The use of an Elizabethan collar may be necessary. If any tissue has been removed, your veterinarian may need to remove stitches after about 10 days. Otherwise, follow any additional instructions he or she may give you.
It is best to keep your cat inside when the weather is cold. If your cat’s habits are such that she may be outside in severe weather, make sure she has access to shelter that protects from wind and snow (or rain), and has straw or blankets to hold warmth.