Frostbite and/or hypothermia


Cats rarely experience frostbite (cold injury caused by freezing of tissue) or hypothermia (lowered body temperature) when left outdoors in cold weather if they have been properly acclimatized, are adequately fed, and have access to shelter that prevents their fur from becoming wet.

However, even short periods can be dangerous for animals who have recently moved from a warm climate to a cold one, for very young, very small, short-haired, sick, and/or old cats, and for any animals whose fur is wet in cool and/or windy weather. Kittens under four weeks of age may become hypothermic at room temperatures between 65° and 85°F (18.3° and 29.4°C) if they are separated from their mother or littermates. Although frostbite and hypothermia often occur together, a severely frostbitten pet may not become hypothermic and vice versa. Prevent frostbite and hypothermia in cold weather that you would consider unsafe for a child by never leaving your pet outdoors without access to warm, dry, draft-free shelter.

Frostbite usually affects the tips of the ears, tail, and the foot pads. When first frostbitten, the skin looks pale and feels cool to the touch, and it is insensitive to painful stimuli. Later the skin may die and fall (slough) off. In less serious cases of frostbite, the skin may never slough off, but hair may fall out and grow back white although it was previously dark colored.

Signs indicating hypothermia may not be accompanied by frostbite.

They include decreased mental alertness, shivering, weak or absent pulse, slowed heart rate, and slowed, shallow respirations. Shivering stops when the body temperature drops below 90°F (32.2°C). Animals whose temperatures drop to 75°F (23.8°C) usually die.

Rewarming is the treatment for both frostbite and hypothermia. If veterinary care is immediately available, do not attempt home treatment.

Wrap your pet (and a hot-water bottle, if available) in a blanket, warm jacket, or other insulator to retain any remaining body warmth, and rush to the veterinary clinic for treatment. Should veterinary care be unavailable, home care will be necessary.

If frostbite is unaccompanied by signs of hypothermia, treatment is directed only at the injured areas. Do not rub the areas, but apply moist heat by immersing the part in warm water (102 to 104°F, 38.9 to 40°C) or by applying warm, moist towels. Rapid return of sensation, pink color, and warmth to the skin indicate successful treatment.

If the cat’s temperature is above 86°F (30°C), simple home treatment for hypothermia is often successful. Bring the pet into a warm room and cover him or her. Warm water bottles (102 to 104°F, 38.9 to 40°C) placed inside a blanket wrapped around the cat help speed rewarming. Be sure to rewarm the water as soon as the temperature drops below 100°F (37.8°C). This can be done in a microwave oven to avoid repeated refilling of bottles. Electric heating pads may also be used if they are well insulated with toweling and the animal is turned frequently to prevent burns. Water- circulating heating pads or chemical gel warming bags are safe and ideal for providing heat. Immersion of the body in warm water (102 to 104°F, 38.9 to 40°C) can also be done if a hair drier or heater is available to prevent rechilling on removal of the pet from the water. The body temperature should be maintained just above 100°F (37.8°C) until ther- moregulation resumes and the animal’s temperature returns to normal.