Cat Frostbite: Clinical Signs and Prevention

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Did you know cats can get frostbite just like humans? Cat frostbite, usually frostbite on cat ears, is a common skin injury seen in cats that live in areas where the outside temperature dips below 32 degrees Fahrenheit/zero degrees Celsius. However, with the right care, injury from frostbite can be easily prevented. Let's take a closer look into what frostbite is, signs that your cat might have it and possible treatment options.

What Is Cat Frostbite?

Frostbite is damage to the skin caused by prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. When skin is exposed to freezing temperatures, it constricts the blood vessels that supply blood to the skin. When this happens, the warmth, oxygen and nutrients that the blood delivers to the skin are diverted to maintain the body's core temperature. As a result, skin freezes, forming ice crystals inside skin cells that cause the cells to rupture and die. While this mechanism preserves the cat's life, cat frostbite can result in irreversible damage to the skin. The skin covering the extremities — including the tail, paws, nose and ears — is at the highest risk for frostbite.

The severity of frostbite is graded by degrees. First-degree frostbite is the mildest form that only affects the top layer of skin and usually doesn't cause permanent injury. Third- and fourth-degree frostbite occurs when the whole foot, leg, nose or ear freezes, resulting in permanent damage and disfiguration.

What Are the Clinical Signs of Cat Frostbite?

Clinical signs of cat frostbite are easy to identify. They include:

  • Discolored skin (white, gray, blue, red, deep purple or black)
  • Skin that becomes red, swollen and painful as it thaws out
  • Blisters that can be filled with blood
  • Skin or extremities that feel hard and cold
  • Fragile, cold skin that breaks when you touch it
  • Ulcers on the skin
  • Dead skin that sloughs off

The signs of frostbite can take several days to weeks to develop, especially on the tips of the ears, and if the frostbite kills the skin, the skin will gradually become blacker and dead-looking until it finally falls off.

Any cat that lives outdoors where the temperature gets below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero degrees Celsius) is at risk for developing frostbite. Kittens and senior cats are also at a higher risk for frostbite, and any cats that have medical conditions that reduce blood flow to the extremities, such as diabetes mellitus, heart disease, kidney disease or hyperthyroidism, are also at an increased risk for frostbite.

What Should I Do if I Think My Cat Has Frostbite?

Gray American shorthair cat wrapped up in warm bedding.

If you think your cat is suffering from frostbite, you can take the following steps to help your cat:

  1. Bring your cat indoors to a place that's warm and dry.
  2. If your cat is shivering, lethargic or feels cold, hypothermia may be a concern, according to Animed. Wrap your cat in towels warmed in the dryer to warm your cat up slowly.
  3. Do not rub, massage or apply any lotions to any skin that seems to be frostbitten.
  4. You can rewarm frostbitten skin with warm (not hot) water in a bowl — it should be cool enough for you to keep your hand in it. You can also use warm compresses. Gently pat the affected areas dry with a towel; don't rub the skin, and don't use hairdryers to warm the skin.
  5. If you're unable to keep the cat warm (i.e., you're outdoors without any indoor spaces nearby), don't warm up any frostbitten skin unless you're able to keep it warm. If the skin thaws and then refreezes, it will cause additional injury to the skin.
  6. Don't give your cat any pain relievers meant for humans — most of them are toxic to cats. Don't give any prescription pain medications to your cat unless directed by your veterinarian.

While caring for your cat with frostbite, it's also important that you call your vet as soon as possible — ideally while you're administering first aid. It's likely that your vet can give you some advice over the phone, but you'll probably need to take your cat to the vet for an examination.

Cat Frostbite: Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Your vet will be able to examine your cat and let you know what other treatment is needed. Frostbite is diagnosed by a combination of history and physical exam findings. Your vet can also provide first aid. In some cases, a vet may prescribe antibiotics if the skin is infected or at risk of infection. Cat frostbite is painful, so your vet will also likely prescribe pain medications for your cat. Other than that, there isn't much more to do for frostbitten skin other than wait and see if the skin can recover.

You'll likely need to bring your cat back for a recheck because signs of frostbite can take time to develop. In severe cases where a significant amount of skin has died or the cat is at risk for developing gangrene, amputating the affected area may be required. Fortunately, if your cat loses an ear tip due to frostbite on cat ears, it won't affect their hearing at all.

The best way to prevent frostbite in your cat is to keep them indoors when the temperature dips below freezing. If your cat refuses to stay inside or is an escape artist, then make sure to provide a warm and dry shelter for them to rest in when it's cold outside.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications.. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space for 5 years, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. In addition to being a speaker, author, veterinarian, and co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity', she co-owns Elevated Eateries Restaurant group in Greeley with her husband of 22 years, and together they are raising 3 slightly feral mini-humans. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado or diving with sharks in the Caribbean.

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