Frostbite is a medical condition resulting in damage or possible death to the skin and the underlying tissues due to freezing. Prolonged exposure to extreme cold causes water in the tissues to freeze, which results in the rupture of surrounding cells.
As the cat is exposed to cold temperatures, the body diverts the blood away from the extremities in order to preserve core body temperature (and the all important vital organs such as the heart, liver, lungs etc), this makes them more vulnerable to frostbite as circulating blood provides the tissues with heat. Ears, the tip of the tail and the feet are most commonly affected. Dampness can increase your cat's chances of developing frostbite along with high wind.
Frostbite is classified according to the severity and includes:
- First-degree frostbite - Affecting the epidermis.
- Second-degree frostbite - Affecting the epidermis and the dermis.
- Third-degree frostbite - Affecting the epidermis, the dermis, and the underlying tissues.
Hypothermia can also occur in conjunction with frostbite. This is an abnormally low body temperature and is a life-threatening condition. Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Skin feels cold (feel around the groin area where there is less fur)
- Decreased rectal temperature
- Slow and shallow breathing
- Slow heart beat
Senior cats, kittens, and cats with certain medical conditions are at greater risk of both frostbite and hypothermia.
What are the symptoms of frostbite in cats?
- The affected area is pale blue-white in colour and may be cold to the touch.
- If third-degree frostbite has occurred, the affected area may feel hard to the touch.
- Depending on the severity, the cat may feel pain when the area is touched, or he may be completely numb.
- Blisters and ulceration of the affected area.
- Your cat may limp if he has frostbite on his feet.
- As the area thaws, it will become red and blistered. The fur may fall out and the area becomes blackened as the tissue dies off.
- Do not administer any painkillers to your cat, most human painkillers are toxic and can result in death.
If you suspect your cat has suffered from frostbite, he should be seen by a veterinarian urgently.
Try to thaw the affected area with lukewarm water (about the temperature you would bathe a baby in). Alternatively, apply a warm compress (this may be easier on the ears). Both of these methods should be continued for around 20 minutes.
Don't rub or massage the area. Just carefully wrap your cat in a towel.
How is frostbite diagnosed?
Diagnosis should be relatively easy based on presenting symptoms and history of exposure to cold temperatures.
How is frostbite treated?
Your cat may be given painkillers to relieve the pain and discomfort of frostbite along with antibiotics to prevent infection.
Severely affected tissues may die, amputation will be necessary.
Preventing frostbite and hypothermia:
Cats should not be kept outdoors in cold temperatures. If you have strays or ferals in the area, or absolutely have to keep a cat outdoors (such as some renters may), provide them with shelter such as a small dog kennel in a sheltered spot where they are able to get out of the wind, rain or snow.