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once bitten: dr. rebecca jackson offers tips for treating frostbite



As I was bundling up my kids for school the other day, it occurred to me that we may forget to think about our four-legged children on chilly days like these.  With the recent cold front that has swept most of the nation, I thought it best to discuss a seemingly obvious, but frequently overlooked, topic: frostbite.  We tend to be quite diligent about covering our family’s fingers and toes, but let’s take a minute to consider other family members who may venture outside during these frigid times.

Believe it or not, but frostbite occurs relatively frequently in cats and dogs.  We assume that their beautiful coats are enough to keep them warm when temperatures plummet, but just like you and me, they have exposed extremities that we need to consider.  The most common areas cats suffer from frostbite on are their tails, ears and feet.  In dogs, we have to worry about their ears, tails, feet and external genitalia (especially the scrotum in male dogs).

Frostbite occurs with prolonged exposure to cold temperatures and/or submersion in cold water.  With the temperatures dropping below zero in many areas recently, more than a few minutes outside can be enough to qualify as prolonged exposure.  In other words, being outside for longer than it takes to do one’s business can be enough cold exposure to result in frostbite.  This can make it especially tough for those animals who enjoy a nice long walk before eliminating, because it just isn’t safe to be outside for too long when the temperatures are this cold.

So, what does frostbite look like?  The affected area will lose its healthy pink color and turn very pale or blue (cyanotic).  The area will be cold to the touch, difficult to feel pulses, and may even have icicles that have formed on the skin.  If the tissue has been exposed for too long, the affected tissue can actually die and turn black in color.  

If you have suspicion that your pet is suffering from frostbite, there are a few things you can do immediately to help:

  1. Warm a towel in the dryer and place it on the affected area (Not too hot! Just warm.)
  2. Place the affected area in a tepid water bath to slowly return it to normal temperature.  Again, make sure that the bath is NOT HOT, as this can cause more damage. 
  3. Do not rub the area or squeeze the tissue, as this can cause more damage.
  4. Seek veterinary attention as soon as is reasonably possible.

As the area warms back up, it will likely turn red and become swollen and irritated looking.  The warming process can be very uncomfortable, so veterinary-prescribed pain medications are often necessary.  Of course, don’t give your pets any medications without discussing with your veterinarian first!  

If the skin has been frozen for too long, it may not be able to be saved.  If this is the case, your veterinarian will work with you to determine the best course of action (usually surgical removal of the non-viable tissue).  It can take a couple of weeks before your vet will be able to tell what tissue is viable and what tissue has to be removed.  

Of course, the best course of action is PREVENTION.  Don’t allow your pets to linger in cold weather.  Use boots, jackets and other accessories as needed to provide protection to these very sensitive and exposed tissues.  When in doubt, call your vet.  He or she is your best source to determine whether or not your pet is suffering from frostbite.  Stay warm!

To more waggin’ and purrin’.  rwkj

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
vet tip of the week

Visit your vet at least once a year to keep your pet protected from preventable diseases.