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Dog Frostbite: 7 Signs and How to Prevent it

Dog in coat in snow looking up
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When the temperature drops outside, our pets are susceptible to cold weather dangers, ranging from hypothermia to frostbite. Here is everything you need to know about dog frostbite, including signs to watch for and how to help an injured pet.

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is a term for what happens to skin and associated body tissues when they are exposed to extremely cold temperatures. When the air temperature is lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, blood vessels in the skin constrict in order to keep the core body temperature in a normal zone. The body does this to avoid damage to vital organs like the heart and brain and to preserve life. This protective measure reduces blood flow to areas of the body that aren’t considered critical for life, such as extremities including fingers, the nose, and ear tips. Cold temperatures plus reduced blood flow to these areas can result in these body parts freezing, which is severely damaging and results in the condition we call frostbite. 

Can Dogs Get Frostbite?

Beagle walking in cold snow

Just like all mammals, dogs that are exposed to freezing temperatures can get frostbite. The parts of a dog’s body that are most susceptible to frostbite are the parts that are farthest from the heart and are exposed to the elements. This includes the paws, the tip of the tail, and ear tips. Dogs that have less hair in these areas, dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors without shelter in the winter, and small dogs are at highest risk of developing frostbite. In addition, dogs that have poor blood supply to their ear tips, such as the miniature Italian Greyhound, are at increased risk for dog frostbite in these areas. Dogs with heart disease, diabetes, or other medical conditions that cause poor circulation are also at increased risk for frostbite. In addition, dogs that live in freezing, damp environments have a higher risk of frostbite than dogs in cold, dry environments.

Dog Frostbite: 7 Signs to Know

Golden Retriever lifts paw in snow

Frostbite in dogs is easy to spot once you know what you are looking for. The most common frostbite symptoms in dogs include:

  • Holding one paw up after being outside in freezing temperatures (frostbite is painful, and this signifies pain)
  • Skin that is cold or feels hard or brittle to the touch because the skin cells are frozen
  • Damage to the skin, which results in discoloration on the paws, ear tips, or tip of the tail that is either gray, pale, or blue. In severe cases, frostbite will kill skin and result in  blackened, dead skin
  • Swelling of the affected skin due to inflammation
  • Dog yelps or pulls body part away when you touch it (signifies pain)
  • Blisters or ulcers that occur as dead skin sloughs off; this is a delayed symptom that can take hours to days to develop
  • Skin turns red and painful when it is thawed

It is important to note that signs of frostbite in dogs can take hours or days to appear on the tips of the ears or the tip of the tail. If the skin is severely damaged, it will die. Dead skin will turn black over a couple of days and then slough off, leaving behind ulcers or red, raw skin. If the skin becomes infected, it may develop an odor and pus may appear. 

What to Do If Your Dog Has Frostbite

Man carrying dog in snow

If you think your dog has frostbite, you will need to administer first aid to your pet. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Move your dog to a warm, dry area immediately.
  2. Call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary clinic as soon as possible and get your dog seen by a veterinarian.
  3. If your dog has signs of hypothermia, treat that first, as hypothermia is life threatening. 
  4. If you cannot move your dog to a warm, dry area, do not warm frostbitten skin if it has the chance of freezing again. Thawing and then refreezing skin and body tissues will cause more damage. 
  5. If your dog is in a warm, dry area, place affected body parts in a bowl of warm water or wrap affected body parts in a moist, warm compress. Use warm water, not hot. The water should be cool enough that you can comfortably keep your hand in it—around 102-105 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not use a heating pad or a hair dryer to warm affected areas.
  6. After you have warmed the skin, pat the skin dry. Do not rub or massage any skin that appears frostbitten. This is painful and will cause additional damage. Keep your dog wrapped in a dry blanket or towels that have been warmed in a dryer if possible. 
  7. Do not give your dog any human pain medications, as they are toxic to dogs. 

A veterinary examination is recommended for any dogs that have developed frostbite, as these dogs are often affected by additional problems associated with hypothermia. Your veterinarian can also prescribe pain medication that is safe for your dog to keep any pain associated with frostbite under control. If the frostbite is severe enough to cause the skin to die, then your veterinarian will advise you on what to expect, including sloughing and signs of infection. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics if they suspect skin infection is likely. Your dog may need to wear a dog cone (e-collar) to keep them from licking the affected area. In severe frostbite cases, amputation of the affected area may be required, however, most cases are mild.

How to Prevent Frostbite in Dogs

Dog wearing coat and booties in snow

The only way to prevent dog frostbite is by protecting your dog from prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. Remember—there are several factors involved in the development of frostbite, including wind speed, time spent outdoors, relative humidity, your dog’s size, breed, and age, the amount of hair on your dog, and any medical conditions that your dog may have. If you’re wondering how many minutes of exposure can lead to frostbite, there are charts available that tell you how long it takes humans to develop frostbite. Keep in mind that frostbite can take less time to develop in some dogs than humans.

You can reduce your dog’s risk of developing frostbite by:

  • Minimizing outdoor exposure when temperatures are freezing
  • Taking shorter, more frequent walks instead of longer walks
  • Putting boots and a jacket on your dog when temperatures are freezing
  • Paying attention if your dog starts holding up a paw outside or shivering, and taking them inside immediately if this happens
  • Providing fresh water so your dog stays hydrated—hydrated dogs have lower risk of frostbite
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