First broadcast on  

This information is provided by Provet for educational purposes only.

You should seek the advice of your veterinarian if your pet is ill as only he or she can correctly advise on the diagnosis and recommend the treatment that is most appropriate for your pet.

Frostbite does occur in domestic animals and emergency treatment is needed to prevent permanent damage to the tissues

Exposure to freezing temperatures causes local blood vessels to constrict in peripheral tissues - especially the exposed extremities that are not well insulated by hair - eg the ear tips, the tail tip, the scrotum, and toes. If the blood supply is reduced for too long the tissues will die due to a lack of oxygen (which is usually supplied by the blood), and accumulation of toxic waste products (which are usually removed by the blood). In addition, once blood circulation is poor and body heat is not brought to the area freezing of the tissue causes ice crystals to form in cells and these cause damage which can be irreversible.. Once the tissue has died bacteria that survive in the absence of oxygen (eg clostridia) can get established causing gangrene.

Wind-chill factor and wetting are especially important factors in the development of frostbite, so these should be avoided during cold spells. Frostbite can be prevented by providing animals with shelter from the weather and warm bedding in which to lie. 

If an animal is exposed to extremely low temperatures emergency treatment should be started to warm the tissues up :

  • Immerse the animal in a bath of warm water 38-44oC
  • Apply warm wet cloths to the area affected
  • Use a hair drier

The damaged tissues should be protected from further injury by dressings and, if necessary, the use of an elizabethan collar to stop self-trauma by the animal.

Tissues affected by frostbite :

  • Appear pale
  • Are cold to the touch
  • May feel firm to the touch

After thawing the tissues :

  • Become reddened
  • Swell
  • Become painful
  • May turn dark-red to black in color after a few days, with a red margin edge demarcating healthy tissue from the dead tissue

Fortunately, even quite badly discolored tissues can recover from frostbite, but sometimes amputation is needed. Veterinary attention should be sought as soon as possible because apart from the need to perform surgery in the worst affected cases,  specialised treatments may be needed to prevent serious complications, including :

  • Intravenous dextran - to prevent a serious disorder called intravascular coagulation
  • Analgesics - to relieve pain
  • Antibiotics to combat infection in the damaged tissues


Updated October 2013