Updated: Feb 7
When the temperature outside drops near and below freezing, even dogs with a thick, weather tolerant coat can succumb to frostbite. Pet owners should know how to identify and treat frostbite, and recognize when emergency veterinary care is needed.
What is frostbite?
Exposure to prolonged cold temperatures causes blood vessels that are closest to a dog’s skin to constrict. This is a normal response in dogs (as well as humans) intended to keep the core body temperature stable.
In extreme cold weather, below 32º F, this constriction reduces blood flow to the extremities, which can cause bodily tissue to freeze. This damage to the tissue is known as frostbite (congelation). Frostbite damage can affect not only the tissue, but also the nerve supply in that area. This is why frostbite needs to be treated immediately.
In dogs, the body parts most commonly affected by frostbite include the ears, nose, tail, nipples and scrotum.
How Do I Know If My Dog has Frostbite?
Frostbite in dogs progresses in stages. Symptoms in an affected area can take several days to appear. Oftentimes, your dog will give you “early warning signs” that the cold is too much for them including:
Yelping/whining that is not typical for your dog, especially when outdoors
Trying to keep paws off the ground while standing
Hesitancy to go outside or to continue walking
Early warning symptoms of frostbite in a dog include:
Pale discoloration, shades of gray or blue, in the paws/limbs. (check beneath the coat)
Pain when touched (yelping/cowering/pulling away)
Skin feels cold or brittle feeling when touched
Swelling in the paws or other areas
Skin ulcers or blisters
Skin that is blackened or dead
Skin that is red, inflamed and painful as it warms
Symptoms of severe frostbite damage to the skin (necrotic) can include:
Skin is dark blue to black
Dead skin that falls off after a period of several days to weeks
Signs of infection
If you see any of the symptoms described above, it is a sign that your dog’s body is not receiving oxygen to the affected parts. Your dog requires immediate veterinary care.
Tips to Protect Your Dog from Frostbite
The Golden Rule for all dogs in winter is to monitor them whenever they are outside in the cold. Even the Northern dog breeds with double-layer coats, such as Huskies can succumb to the harshness of winter weather-- especially if they aren't use to it.
Some dogs are more at risk than others for frostbite:
Dogs in poor health
Small & Older Dog Winter Weather Tip. If you have a small dog, an older dog or one who is in poor health, buy them winter booties and a body coat so they can be kept warm and comfortable when going outside to do their business.
How to Protect Your Dog from Frostbite
The following tips can help you protect your canine companion from frostbite:
Lather on a Protective Barrier. Ask your vet about paw balms and waxes designed to create a protective barrier over the skin on the paws and other areas.
Avoid Puddles. While you are out with your dog, keep them out of puddles. Even a small amount of icy water freezing to your dog’s limbs can lead to problems.
Frequent Paw & Ear Checks. As you are out with your dog, or if you are letting them loose in a fenced yard, frequently check their ears, paws, and the exposed tissue around their private parts. These areas will be the first to show signs of overexposure to cold weather.
Clean Paws are Happy Paws. Keep your dog's paws clear of ice, sand, and de-icing salts that can damage tissue.
First Steps for Treating Frostbite in Dogs
We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have your dog evaluated by a veterinarian if you suspect frostbite is affecting them. The immediate first-aid steps you can take for frostbite in dogs include:
Warm-up Your Dog. Bring the dog inside immediately. If she is wet, dry her off with warm (not hot) towels. Avoid using a blow-dryer. Wrap the dog in warm, not hot, blankets. Your goal is to re-establish their normal body temperature.
Warm the Paws (Ears, Tail). If the paws are affected, wet small clothes with warm, tepid water (not hot!) and apply gently. You can also do this for the ears and tail. Remember dog’s are very sensitive about these areas on their bodies so you want to be gentle and soothing.
No Ointments. Do not apply salves, ointments or other creams even if made for dogs. If the area is cracked or bleeding, contact your vet for further instruction. Meanwhile, keep the areas clean, dry,and warm.
Don't Rub. Rubbing frostbitten skin will only cerate further irritation and likely damage the skin.
Pet Sitters and Dog Walkers to the Rescue in Winter in Wilmington, DE
Winter is full-on here in Wilmington, DE and surrounding areas. If you’re not able to keep up with your pup’s exercise routine, call Weather or Not Dog Walkers. Our compassionate, professional dog walkers and pet sitters know how to care for your dog’s needs in all types of weather--and we’re happy to do so! Contact Weather or Not of Delaware for more information about how we can help you keep your dog active, happy, and warm this winter.