Pet Articles

Frostbite and Hypothermia in Pets

It is wise to prepare our pets for the cold winter temperatures coming ahead. It is a misconception to believe that cats and dogs can withstand cold temperatures because they have fur. Some large dog breeds are well equipped for the winter months and love to be outdoors while others like small breed dogs are more sensitive and have no tolerance for the cold. Even a quick moment outside to do its business is all it takes for a little Dachshund’s paws to freeze up and have him shivering. Providing your Dachshund or other small breed with a coat and boots is a smart move.

Cats usually don’t stay out doors for long when it’s very cold. They might make a quick pounce and come right back into the house. Always make a note of the upcoming forecast before letting your cat out. It might be colder the next day and if kitty hasn’t come home he or she will be more at risk to developing frostbite and hypothermia especially if hurt.

If you are not going to be home to let your cat back into the house don’t let it out. Don’t leave a cat or dog out in cold temperatures! The consequences could cost it its life.

What is Frostbite?

Animals have ways of dealing with cold temperatures but when exposed to extreme freezing temperatures for an extended period these same mechanisms that work to keep them warm and alive can actually cause damage and death to the tissues of their extremities (tips of ears, tail, foot pads.) more commonly known as frostbite.

When a dog or cat is exposed to cold temperatures its body reacts in stages;

  • Your pet’s fur provides insulation just like us wearing a coat. Its hairs, when exposed to cold air undergo pilo-erection. This is like you and I getting goose bumps. The hairs “stand up erect” trapping the air in that layer. This air is warmed by the body and ads additional insulation.
  • When the body’s core temperature decreases, an involuntary reflex by the skeletal muscles known as “shivering” is triggered to generate heat and warm you up. Animals like humans experience this same reaction.
  • When the body is really getting cold and the animal’s life may be at risk, the body responds by vasoconstricting the peripheral tissues. This means the body is being selective in where it is sending warm blood.
  • The organs are the most important to keep an animal and human alive so blood is circulating in the core of the body (heart, liver, kidney lungs,) and shuts down temporally by constricting blood vessels to the extremities until the body’s normal temperature is attained.
  • By this stage if a cat or dog has not received First Aid or warmth on it’s own, frostbite will develop. Tissues that have frozen due to this response, die. Cats and dogs often experience frostbite on the tips of their ears, tails, face footpads, legs and the genitalia in male dogs.
  • Frostbite can result in the loss of limbs, toes, tips of ears.


Symptoms to look for if your pet has been outdoors and you suspect it may be suffering from frostbite.

  • Ice on body and limbs
  • Shivering
  • Tissues are bright red followed by pale color( vasoconstriction) to black color (death of tissue/ sloughing of skin)

First Aid

  • Warm the affected area rapidly with warm water using towels or warmed ice packs.
  • If it is a limb or paw that is frozen, soak it only in a bath or bowl of warm water.
  • Dry gently after you have the warmed the area.
  • Do not rub or massage the frozen tissue
  • Do not apply snow or ice
  • Do not immerse your pet completely in a bath this will cause the body temperature to decrease and cause hypothermia.

Prevent self-trauma

When the tissues are warmed it may cause some discomfort to your pet. The same also occurs when tissues are dead.

  • Wrap your pet in a blanket to prevent self-trauma and keep him or her warm.
  • Seek Veterinary care. Secondary infections can sometimes result from gangrene tissues.


Hypothermia is an abnormal lowering of the body’s temperature. This is a serious condition that can cause unconsciousness, shock and even the death of a pet. Pets that are outdoors in cold or subzero temperatures can become hypothermic.

If your pet shows signs of frostbite he or she may be also experiencing hypothermia. However do not rely on frostbite alone as an indication of hypothermia, as it can occur without the presence of frostbite.


Low body temperature (below 37,5) Take your pet’s temperature rectally! A lubricated electronic thermometer is easy to use.

  • Shivering
  • Weakness

First Aid

  • Warm your pet.
  • Use blankets
  • Put warm water in plastic bottles then wrap in towels to prevent burns.
  • Use plastic zip lock bags filled with uncooked rice that you warm in the microwave for 1-2 minutes then wrap in a towel.
  • Micro wave ice packs that have not been frozen and wrap in a towel.
  • If you use a heating pad never put the animal directly on the pad. Always use several towels. A weak animal will not be able to move and will suffer burns.
  • A hair dryer on medium warm is a quick start to warm up your pet while someone else is preparing blankets and water bottles.

Monitor your pet’s rectal temperature every 10-15 minutes.

  • When his or her body temperature is back to normal (38.5 C) stop warming. An over heated animal is just as dangerous.
  • Seek Veterinary care even if it looks like your pet is fine after you have warmed him or her. Kidney and bladder problems are common in pets that have been exposed to cold temperatures (infections).

An animal that has been hypothermic and or has frostbite is in danger for his or her life. Veterinary care is a must.

Chantale Robinson AHT Bs.
Holistic and Alternative Vet. Medicine
Salaberry Veterinary Clinic
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Leave a Comment

(Additional questions? Ask them for free in our dog - cat - pet forum)