Frostbite: The Bite of Winter

How can you tell if you horse has frostbite, and what should you do if your horse has frostbite?
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Growing up a child of the South, I never expected to live far beyond Atlanta’s warm glow. However, fate dictated otherwise, and I have had to learn to cope with nothern winter weather. During my first winter in New York, I learned just how cold it could get. Although I was lucky since most of my time was spent inside the warm large animal clinic at Cornell University, if I ventured outdoors for more than a few minutes, I had a rude and often painful awakening. The burning, aching, and tingling of feet and ears that were dangerously cold became common companions. I was told often that this feeling was the early stages of frostbite, and I wondered how my equine friends could last all day and night outside and I could only last 10 minutes. Why did unprotected hooves that lived in snowbanks for five months of the year not freeze and slough right off?

Although frozen water buckets are often the biggest concern for horse owners in Northern climates, frostbite is also a potential threat. How do you protect your horse from frostbite? Which horses are most at risk? How can you tell if you horse has frostbite, and what should you do if you think your horse or foal has frostbite? Just how serious is it anyway? In this article we’ll cover all these questions and more.

What Is Frostbite?

Frostbite can be defined simply as the freezing of the skin and/or the tissues underneath the skin, such as tendons, fascia (sheets of connective tissue covering or binding together body structures), or even muscle. Obviously, the deeper tissues are frozen, the more severe the frostbite. What I and most other people experience when their skin or extremities become very cold is frostnip. Frostnip is when the skin turns white and tingles. As the skin is warmed, it becomes red.

Because horse skin is often pigmented and covered with hair, it can be difficult to see the skin turning white (blanching) as the tissues become too cold. Frostbite occurs when those cold tissues are not warmed and the cells freeze. The frostbitten skin will then turn an “ugly” white or bluish color and begin to swell within several hours to a day. A line of demarcation — a line separating normal and frostbitten skin — will also become obvious. The abnormal skin might have blisters

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Written by:

Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, owns Early Winter Equine in Lansing, New York. The practice focuses on primary care of mares and foals and performance horse problems.

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