Frostbite and Hypothermia

by | Jan 10, 2020 | News

Our lovely state is notorious for the frigid months of winter. Most of us native North Dakotan’s have built a tolerance for the cold weather, however we are able to dress warm and ensure that we do not stay out in the cold for long due to the negative temperatures. Our animals have the luxury of a built-in coat to help endure the outside temperatures, but this doesn’t mean they are exempt from the consequences of the cold. It is very important for pet owners to know and realize the signs and symptoms of Hypothermia and Frostbite in their animals.

            Hypothermia is described as a profound drop in body temperature. Newborns, geriatric (old), and sick animals are at greater risk for developing hypothermia in a shorter timeframe than other animals as their bodies are easily succumbed to the cold and wind. Hypothermia can be treated by heating the animals slowly, as too quick of a temperature change can cause more damage; this includes burns and/or shock. For mild hypothermic animals sources of heat include an electric blanket, heat lamps, hot water bottles, or a warming box. Be sure that none of these objects make direct contact with the animal’s skin. A blanket or towel can be used to put between the object and the animal to avoid thermal burns. Do not submerge the animal in warm water as this can lead to serious cardiac and pulmonary complications. Hypothermia can cause complications to the brain and immune system as well, depending on the severity. A thermometer can be used to rectally check your animal’s temperature throughout the process of rewarming. Normal body temperature ranges between 99 and 102 degrees F.  Those with moderate to severe hypothermia may require immediate medical attention. The treatment that may be included for more severe instances includes warmed urinary bladder lavage, warmed intravenous fluids, or warm water/saline enemas. These treatments should only be done by a DVM and veterinary staff.

            Frostbite is another concern in our colder months. Frostbite is described as destruction of the tissue in a localized area due to extreme cold. Areas most likely to be injured include the ears, tail, teats, scrotum, and lower limbs. Frostbite occurs when the environmental temperature drops below 32 degrees F and the blood vessels close to the skin start to narrow or constrict. This constriction helps preserve the core body temperature by moving blood toward the core of the body rather than the cooler parts of the body. In extreme cold, this process can reduce blood flow to certain areas (paws, ears, tail) to critically low levels. This causes the tissues to freeze, which results in severe tissue injury. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include discoloration of the affected area (will appear often pale, gray, or blue), coldness and/or brittleness of the area when touched, pain when touching the area, swelling of the area, blisters or skin ulcers, and areas of blackened skin (dead skin). As tissues thaw from being frostbitten, they may become very red and painful due to the inflammation. Areas that are severely frostbitten may become necrotic. Medical attention should be sought out immediately if frostbite is suspected. First aid suggestions that owners can begin at home include moving the animal to a warm and dry area as quickly and safely as possible, wrapping their body in warm and dry towels and placing hot water bottles wrapped in towels near the body, and carefully warming the affected areas with warm (NOT HOT) water (104-108 degrees F). Things to avoid when performing first aid would be to massage the frostbitten area or using direct heat (such as a hair dryer). These methods can cause more damage to the area rather than good. In severe cases, amputation of the affected body part is needed.

            It is necessary for owners to understand the importance of keeping their animals warm during these harsh winter months along with knowing the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Untreated, these conditions can cause significant damage, or death, to any beloved pet. To avoid hypothermia and frostbite, limit your pet’s time outside when temperatures are lower than 40 degrees F or if ice and snow are present. Even if your pet likes being outside in the snow (such as dogs with thick fur coats), their time should be limited to as to avoid any consequences. If you are ever unsure of the signs or symptoms of these conditions, please contact your veterinarian ASAP to determine whether or not your pet should be seen.

            That being said, enjoy the comfort of a warm and snuggly friend in a nice, heated house

-Mariah, Tech Assistant