The winter has been brutal in Midwestern United States, I am told by the newspapers online. The subzero temperatures are far lower than any that we experience here in the UK. Midwestern United States is an area which is towards the top and the middle of the US. The region consists of 12 states. One of our esteemed regular visitors, Ruth, lives in that area.
Although a high percentage of cats living in America live indoors, full-time, there are many cats that live outdoors, or indoors and outdoors, or are strays and of course we must remember feral cats. For these cats, prolonged exposure to cold at the temperatures referred to (-40°F) can cause serious health problems.
Hypothermia in cats is a big deal. Also, cats outdoors in very low temperatures can suffer frostbite. There is a recent story online from Fargo which is in North Dakota. A local shelter in Fargo says that the winter has been particularly tough on cats in the area. An example is a cat that they have named Polar. A lady found this cat in her garage. His ears and paws were frozen. He had frostbite. He ended up at a veterinarian’s surgery (thankfully) where they decided to save his life (it was touch and go). Veterinarians amputated some toes and the tips of his ears. Cats are very adaptable and a few weeks afterwards he was able to walk on all fours again. Polar is like other cats in shelters that are missing parts of their ears, parts of their tails and paw pads.
It does not take very long in temperatures of 40° below for an outdoor cat to suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia in cats can also occur if the cat gets wet in cold weather and the temperatures do not need to be as cold as those stated. Hypothermia also occurs if the cat is in shock after, for instance, an injury.
Prolonged chilling burns up energy in the body and can result in low blood sugar. One of the things a person can do to rectify this is to rub a bit of honey onto the cat’s gums where the sugar is absorbed into the body.
The signs of hypothermia are firstly shivering followed by lethargy, collapse and then coma. Stray cats surviving in extremely low temperatures should be brought indoors, quite obviously. That may not be possible. If possible a cat should be brought to a shelter. If the cat suffers from hypothermia the cat should be wrapped in a blanket and if the cat is wet he should be given a warm bath. The skin should be dried thoroughly. Warm water packs can be applied to arm pits, chest and abdomen. The temperature of the pack should be about the same as that of a baby’s bottle. It may be necessary to take a cat to a veterinarian because, as mentioned, hypothermia is not always that easy to rectify. What I mean is it can be difficult to bring the core body temperature back to normal.
Hypothermia, which is less than normal body temperature, becomes serious when the cat’s body temperature decreases to 94°F (34.4°C).
On this website there are one or two pages which may prove useful. There is a page on making home-made outdoor shelters. However, these alone will not, as far as I can tell, suffice under extremely low temperatures. They would need to be heated.
I think we should mention dogs as well. Some dogs are kept outside. They live outside and have a kennel. Sometimes people become careless and sometimes these dogs die due to low temperatures. Dogs with short coats are unsuited to long periods outside and low temperatures.
A quick word about frostbite. Frostbite is damage to the skin and underlying tissue. It is often accompanied by hypothermia. As mentioned, the cats extremities are affected. Frostbitten skin is initially pale and then when circulation returns it becomes red, it may peel and the dead area will turn dark and become brittle and hard to the touch. It may take a week or more before the full effects of frostbite are apparent.
In my opinion, if a cat appears to be suffering from frostbite, the cat should be taken to a veterinarian. However, frostbitten areas should be warmed up by immersing in warm but not hot water for 20 minutes until the skin becomes flushed. Ice or snow should not be applied. The areas that are damaged should not be rubbed or massaged as this may damage the affected area because the tissue there is easily damaged.
Like dogs, some cats are better suited to survival in very cold weather. These cats have double or triple coats. Many domestic short haired cats have single coats. These cats do not have an undercoat. They are less suited to cold conditions. Pedigree cats with coats that are less functional than normal due to a genetic mutation such as the Peterbald should be kept indoors at all times. It is ironic that the Peterbald comes from St Petersburg in Russia.