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Key takeaways

Frostbite is a rare condition in cats that results from loss of blood flow to parts of the body as a result of extreme cold.

  • The body restricts blood flow to the extremities when exposed to severely cold temperature
  • Prolonged exposure results in freezing and death of affected tissues
  • Mild frostbite presents with itch, hair loss, and red skin and the affected area may be cold to the touch and lack sensation
  • In severe cases, sores may develop or small areas of dead tissue may simply dry up and fall off
  • Diagnosis involves physical examination alongside a history of exposure to extreme cold
  • Treatment involves thawing of frozen tissue and amputation of dead tissue such as digits or ear tips
  • Prognosis is good and loss of digits or ear tips is well tolerated in cats
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A closer look: Frostbite in Cats

Regions of the world that have prolonged winter seasons with temperatures below freezing all pose a risk of frostbite to outdoor animals. When the body is exposed to extreme cold temperature for an extended period of time, blood flow to the extremities is restricted. Restricted blood flow helps maintain the body’s core temperature and protect vital organs.

Mild frostbite usually results in painful or misshapen ear tips or digits. Severe frostbite results in sloughing and amputation of affected tissue. Cats with symptoms of frostbite benefit from prompt veterinary attention.

Ear tips and digits are particularly prone to frostbite due to the large surface area.

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Risk factors

In extreme cases, with prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, frostbite leads to hypothermia and may damage internal organs such as the kidneys.

Outdoor cats living in regions with prolonged winters are most at risk of frostbite. It is more common in:

  • Older cats
  • Cats with preexisting conditions, including congestive heart failure, diabetes mellitus, and osteoarthritis
  • Cats that have recently relocated from a warm area to a cold area

Possible causes

Frostbite is the result of prolonged exposure to low temperatures, typically below 32℉ /0℃.

Blood is the medium used by the body to distribute oxygen and body heat to tissues. When exposed to extreme cold temperature, the body adapts to protect vital organs, diverting blood flow from extremities towards the body’s core. Prolonged lack of blood flow in the extremities results in inadequate oxygen and heat delivery to affected tissues, leading to frostbite.

Main symptoms

Testing and diagnosis

Investigation of frostbite involves:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood work
  • Urinalysis

Steps to Recovery

Treatment options include:

  • Initial, gentle thawing of affected tissue with warm water
  • Pain relief
  • Evaluation of tissue viability with amputation of dead tissue

Note: always consult a veterinarian before attempting to warm a pet at home. Sudden changes from cold to hot can lead to shock, which is life threatening.

Prognosis depends on the extent of the frostbite. Longer exposure to lower temperatures increases severity. Mild cases often resolve with minimal long term damage while severe frostbite results in permanent injury or amputation of the affected areas.


Prevention of frostbite involves protecting older or unwell cats from extreme temperatures. Cats that have recently moved from a warm region to a cold region should be given time to acclimatize to outdoor temperatures. Cats that live entirely indoor lifestyles are very unlikely to ever have frostbite.

Is Frostbite in Cats common?

Frostbite is uncommon in cats

Typical Treatment

  • Rewarming
  • Pain relief
  • Amputation


Rosanna Marsella DVM DipACVD; David Scarff BVetMed CertSAD MRCVS - Writing for Vetlexicon
Tammy Hunter, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals

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