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What is Frostbite?

Prolonged contact to cold temperatures causes the body to constrict blood vessels close to the skin in order to keep the core body temperature stable. In extreme cold, this can reduce the blood flow to extremities. This reduced blood flow combined with those cold temperatures can cause irreparable damage to those frozen tissues, which is why frostbite needs to be treated immediately.

Frostbite, or congelation, occurs when prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures, below 32º F, occurs. This can cause tissues to freeze and sustain severe damage. Most commonly affected body parts in dogs are ears, nose, tail, nipples and scrotum.

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Symptoms of Frostbite in Dogs

Symptoms of frostbite are seen in the affected areas and can take up to several days to appear. They include:

  • Pale discoloration, often in shades of gray or blue
  • Pain when touched
  • Cold or brittle feeling when touched
  • Swelling
  • Skin ulcers or blisters
  • Skin that is blackened or dead
  • Skin that is red, inflamed and painful as it thaws

If the tissues are so severely damaged that they become necrotic, or die, those symptoms can include:

  • Skin that is dark blue to black 
  • Dead skin that falls off after a period of several days to weeks
  • Pus forming
  • Foul smell
  • Secondary bacterial infection

Hyperthermia happens often in conjunction with frostbite. These symptoms can include:

  • Excessive shivering
  • Shallow or labored breathing
  • Stiff movements
  • Lethargy
  • Low body temperature, under 100º F

Causes of Frostbite in Dogs

The only cause of frostbite in dogs in a prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures, below 32º F. This cold exposure causes the blood vessels near the skin to restrict, keeping your dog’s heat near its core. Tissues with a reduced blood flow and subjected to cold temperatures too long can freeze, and suffer severe damage. Some conditions that may heighten the risk your dog has of getting frostbite include: 

  • Any medical conditions that affect blood flow, such as heart disease or diabetes mellitus
  • Wet fur
  • Short hair
  • Small size
  • Illness or old age

Diagnosis of Frostbite in Dogs

An immediate on the spot check of exposed and affected areas of your dog may clue you in to a case of frostbite before medical attention is sought. Look for the symptoms listed above.

A veterinarian exam will look at the tissues, and the length of time your dog was exposed to severely cold temperatures. A urinalysis and blood test may be performed to assess any internal damage.

Treatment of Frostbite in Dogs

The treatment of frostbite should be addressed immediately. Steps need to be taken while waiting for veterinary help. 

At Home

Begin by moving your dog into a dry, warm space as quickly as possible. Your dog may be suffering from hypothermia, or a low core temperature. Treat this first by slowly wrapping your dog in dry, warm blankets or towels. Also, placing hot water bottles wrapped in towels near your dog’s body can help to warm him.

Carefully warm specific affected areas with warm water, around 100º F. You should be able to place a hand in the water comfortably. Soak the affected body part directly in the warm water, or use warm water compresses on the area. Once the area is warmed, carefully pat dry as thoroughly as possible. Try to prevent your dog from licking and scratching at affected areas.

Wrap your dog in warmed towels or blankets when transporting to a veterinary clinic. There are things you should not do while treating your dog. These include:

  • Do not use hot water for warming frostbitten areas, as it can cause more damage
  • Do not use direct heat on affected areas, such as a hair dryer or heating pad
  • Do not massage or rub your dog, or affected areas
  • Do not warm frostbitten areas if they cannot be kept warm, such as outside in cold temperatures. If tissues refreeze, additional damage can occur
  • Do not give your dog pain medication not prescribed by a veterinarian. Human pain relievers can be toxic

At Your Veterinarian

Once an exam has been performed to assess the extent of the damage, treatment will follow accordingly. Mild cases of frostbite often heal, leaving only a little permanent damage. More severe cases can cause disfigurement of affected tissues. Very extreme cases of frostbite may require surgical amputation of dead tissues. Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication and antibiotics.

Recovery of Frostbite in Dogs

Pain medication and antibiotics may be sent home to help with recovery. Mild cases can heal, while severe cases may need more attention. If surgery to remove necrotic tissues was performed, your veterinarian will advise you on home care.

Prevent frostbite in your dog by limiting the amount of time he may be exposed to extremely cold temperatures, anything below 32º F. Consider using boots made for dogs to protect your dog’s paws. A coat or jacket for dogs is good to help keep your dog warm on long walks. Cleaning the snow and ice from your dog’s paws and fur as soon as you can will also keep your dog from becoming too cold.