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Winter in our region can be quite unpredictable. Sometimes we experience extremely cold temperatures, as we did this past week; while at other times during our winter months, we can have temperatures in the 50s or 60s. It is extremely important to be aware of the rapid and harsh weather changes, as they affect animals too. While some species and breeds of animals have thick coats or other protective layers, it is important to provide the appropriate provisions to help them make it through the winter.
One of the most common conditions in freezing weather is frostbite, or congelatio in medical terminology. Frostbite is the damage that is caused to skin and other tissues due to extreme cold. When the temperature outside drops below 32°F, blood vessels in the skin layers start to constrict. The constriction of these vessels helps conserve the body’s temperature by diverting blood away from the peripheral, cooler parts of the body to the core. During prolonged periods of time, this safety mechanism can in fact be detrimental to tissue health and viability. The constriction limits the amount of oxygenated blood being delivered to the tissue. With the combination of reduced blood flow and cooler temperatures, the extremities can begin to freeze. Frostbite is most likely to occur on body parts furthest from the heart.
Animals like dogs, cats, horses and livestock are more likely to have frostbite of their ears, feet and tail. Some animals like cattle can have frostbite on their udders (mammary glands) due to nursing offspring or in dairy cows post milking. Chickens and roosters often experience frostbite on the fleshy portions of skin on top of their heads, combs and their feet.
If a tissue is suffering from frostbite the following may be noted:
• Discoloration of the affected area of skin; this discoloration is often pale, gray or bluish
• Coldness and/or brittleness of the area when touched
• Pain when you touch the body part(s)
• Swelling of the affected area(s)
• Blisters or skin ulcers
• Areas of blackened or dead skin
If you suspect an animal has frostbite, you should seek medical attention immediately. Here are a few interim first aid suggestions that you can begin to follow:
• Move the animal to a warm, dry area as quickly and as safely as possible.
• DO NOT rub or massage the affected area.
• If you are outdoors, DO NOT warm a frostbitten area if you cannot keep it warm. Additional cold exposure or refreezing will more severely injure the tissues.
• You may carefully warm the affected area with warm (not hot) water. The recommended water temperature is 104 to 108°F (40 to 42°C); at this temperature, you should be able to comfortably place your hand in the warm water. If the water is too hot, you may cause more damage than not using any water at all. You may apply warm-water compresses or soak the affected area in a bowl of warm water. DO NOT use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer.
• After you have warmed the area, pat it dry carefully and thoroughly.
• Until a veterinarian can examine the animal, keep it in a warm environment or wrapped in warm towels/wraps.
• DO NOT give any pain medication unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian. Many human pain relievers, including acetaminophen and aspirin, can be toxic to animals.
It is very important to keep animals protected from the elements. Not all animals are meant to come inside or be subjected to artificial heaters/warming systems. If an animal is meant to be kept outside, it is important they have proper shelter that will shield them from the elements such as wind, water, snow and ice. Adequate food and water are critical during extremely cold temperatures as patients will burn more calories trying to keep warm. Contact a veterinarian if you have any questions or concerns.
[Contact Dr. D’Abbraccio at www.facebook.com/CatskillVeterinaryServices, www.catskillvetservices.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.]