Cold Exposure and Frostbite in Cats

Prolonged exposure to cold results in a drop in body temperature. This is most likely to occur when a cat is wet. Hypothermia also occurs with shock, after a long period under anesthesia, and in newborn kittens. Prolonged chilling burns up the available energy in the body and predisposes the cat to low blood sugar.

The signs of hypothermia are violent shivering followed by listlessness and lethargy, a rectal temperature below 97°F (36°C), and finally, collapse and coma. Hypothermic cats can withstand extended periods of cardiac arrest because the low body temperature lowers the metabolic rate. CPR may be successful in such cases.

Treatment: Wrap your cat in a blanket or coat and carry him into the house. If the cat is wet (having fallen into icy water or been out in cold rain), give him a warm bath. Rub vigorously with towels to dry the skin.

Warm a chilled cat by applying warm water packs, wrapped in towels, to the armpits, chest, and abdomen. The temperature of the pack should be about that of a baby's bottle-warm to the wrist. Take the cat's rectal temperature every 10 minutes. Continue to change the packs until the rectal temperature reaches 100°F (37.8°C). Do not warm the cat with a hair dryer, which may cause burns.

As the cat begins to move about, give him some honey or a few spoonfuls of a glucose solution-made by adding 4 teaspoons of sugar to a pint of warm water (7 g of sugar added to 500 ml of warm water). If your cat won't drink or lick it, dab a bit of honey or Karo syrup on his gums.

Frostbite

Frostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissues caused by extreme cold. It often accompanies hypothermia. It most commonly involves the toes, ears, scrotum, and tail. These areas are the most exposed and are only lightly protected by fur. At first, frostbitten skin is pale and white. With the return of circulation, it becomes red and swollen. Later it may peel. Eventually, it looks much like a burn, with a line of demarcation between live and dead tissue. The dead area will turn dark and become hardened and brittle. The actual extent of the damage may not be apparent for a week or more. The dead skin separates in one to three weeks.

Treatment: Warm frostbitten areas by immersing in warm (not hot) water for 20 minutes or until the tissue becomes flushed. Never apply snow or ice. Tissue damage is greatly increased if thawing is followed by refreezing. Do not rub or massage the affected parts, because the damaged tissue is easily destroyed. Your cat should be taken to the veterinarian for follow-up care. Topical or oral antibiotics may be prescribed.

As sensation returns to the cold areas, they may be painful. Do not let your cat excessively groom those areas or chew on them.

This article is excerpted from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.