How to Treat and Prevent Frostbite in Cats and Dogs

Written by Dr. Colleen Fisher  | Published on: 11/17/2021

Arctic air creates freezing temperatures across most of Canada during the winter months.The cool thing (pun intended!) is that dogs have a unique collection of blood vessels within their paw pads that act as a kind of counter-current heat exchanger.

As the temperature drops, there is an increase in blood flow to the feet that warms the blood before it returns to the heart. The body stays warm and the paws are less susceptible to cold injuries like frostbite.

Cat feet have fewer of these blood vessel patterns of and may be more likely to suffer in freezing weather. Cold-related tissue damage leading to frostbite is still a problem for other body parts such as noses, the scrotal sac in male dogs, tails, and upright-standing ear tips.

What does frostbite look like in cats and dogs?

Worry about frostbite when you see these signs:

  • Swollen or hardened feet, ear margins, tail tips, or lips
  • Fur over frost-bitten areas has turned white; the skin itself looks red, black, or even blue
  • Prolonged licking or chewing of paw pads or toenails
  • Cracked or bleeding pads, ear margins, tail tips, and noses
  • Crying, growling, or snapping when you attempt to touch frostbitten body parts

Preventing cold injuries in winter

Monitor outdoor temperatures

While many pets are comfortable outdoors, cold-related injuries can occur at any temperature below freezing (0° C). 

Ensure your pet has shelter when spending time outdoors

High winds can decrease the time that a pet is safe outdoors. Pets who do more than zip outside to poop and pee in January need appropriate housing and protection from frigid conditions. 

Older pets have a tougher time staying comfortable during the winter

Senior cats and dogs may not be able to move as quickly or stay moving due to arthritis, vision, and general health. Limit their time outdoors if you cannot directly supervise their activity.

Short-coated breeds may need winter jackets and boots

Dogs from Chihuahuas to Great Danes may enjoy the great outdoors for longer periods if they wear garments that help keep out the cold.

Don’t forget about hypothermia

Frostbite is not the only cold-related injury we see in the veterinary clinic. Hypothermia occurs when a pet cannot maintain their core body temperature at normal levels.

Blood flows to the important organs in the chest and belly and results in decreased circulation to the legs, tail, and head. Dogs and cats may stumble and shiver in mild cases.

As hypothermia becomes severe, animals may have grey or white gums, appear very stiff, and eventually become comatose. Hypothermia can be fatal without emergency medical help.

Pet insurance can help with the cost of vet visits

Call your local veterinary hospital if you have concerns about frostbite or other conditions related to winter weather. Your veterinary staff will offer the best advice regarding care to keep your cat or dog their happiest and healthiest. Learn what’s covered by Petsecure and get a free quote today.