It could be freezing cold outside with five feet of snow and our pets will still want to go outside to play and explore. Even the smallest of our 4-legged family members (both cats and dogs) enjoy a good outdoor winter adventure now and then. Pets with a healthy hair coat and undercoat usually don’t have a problem with maintaining their core body temperature in cold weather as long as they keep active and continually moving. If your pet doesn’t have a very thick hair coat, putting a doggy coat or vest on them can help keep their core warm.
Your pet’s body responds to cold temperatures by keeping its blood supply focused on the main organs in the body so they don’t become damaged from hypothermia. Tiny blood vessels in the ears, tail and paws constrict in attempt to preserve core body heat and keep blood moving toward the vital organs. If this shift in the blood supply away from extremities goes on for too long, frostbite can occur. Freezing temperatures allow tiny ice crystals to form within the exposed tissues while the blood is not fully circulating to them. These ice crystals injure and can destroy healthy skin cells. If your pet is wet or damp, their tissue is even more vulnerable to frostbite.
Frostbitten tissue is usually noticeable within a few hours of warming up. It may cause the tissue in the area to initially appear pale or gray. It may also still feel hard and cold once your pet’s body has warmed up. As the tissue begins to thaw, it may appear red and can be very painful. In severe cases, the damaged tissue may eventually turn black and slough off.
Dogs and cats with extra hair between their toes can sometimes build up little ice balls between the toes, which can be very uncomfortable. Salt used on the roads can be quite irritating to your pet’s paws. Be sure to clean their paws once you arrive back home. You can also get little booties for them to wear when walking outside in winter conditions (although it may affect their “cool” look!) to keep their paws clean and comfortable.
If you think your pet has been exposed to extreme cold temperatures, move them into a warm and dry indoor area (or even into a warm vehicle) as soon as possible. Wrap your pet in warm, dry towels or blankets to improve their circulation and increase their core body temperature. If you think there are areas of frostbite, do not rub or massage the affected areas. Allow the circulation to return naturally as your pet’s body warms up. Your veterinarian may need to prescribe your pet pain medication and antibiotics (to prevent secondary bacterial infection in cases of tissue death and sloughing) in severe frostbite situations.