Can Dogs Get Frostbite?

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Frostbite can be very bad for humans and lead to the loss of feeling and use of extremities or even the complete loss of them in extreme cases.  But what about our canine friends with nice, furry coats?

It just makes sense that your pet should only be outside for short periods of time and should be kept out of the water during extremely cold weather, but can exposure to cold conditions lead to frostbite in dogs?

Can Dogs Get Frostbite?

YES!

Just because your dog has a nice warm fur coat, it doesn't mean he is fully protected from the bitter cold of short winter days. In fact, dogs are just as much at risk of freezing their extremities as you are. The most common places for dogs to get frostbite are the tips of their ears and the tips of their tails.

Some breeds such as Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, St. Bernards, and Samoyeds love to be outside in the cold. Yet even they are vulnerable. There is no shame in putting booties on your dog to keep his feet protected during freezing weather--even sled dogs wear booties to protect their feet.

When exposed to extreme cold for an extended period of time or submerged in freezing water, your dog can quickly succumb to frostbite. You should watch for signs such as changes in skin color to a white or bluish color that becomes red and swollen when warmed up.

Does My Dog Have Frostbite?

There are several very common signs that your pup might have a case of frostbite that are relatively easy to spot.


Symptoms

  • Skin that has become discolored (gray, bluish, white)

  • Skin that is cold/brittle to the touch

  • Swelling of the areas affected

  • Pain when you touch the affected area

  • Skin ulcers and blisters

  • Skin that has become blackened or dead

Causes

Frostbite is caused when the outside temperatures are below freezing and an area of the body is exposed to this temperature for an extended period of time. The lower temperatures cause the blood vessels to constrict to help the body retain heat. However, restricting blood flow to extremities can allow the tissue in these areas to freeze, resulting in significant tissue damage.


Diagnosis

Typically, diagnosis is based on the dog's medical history and by a physical examination. Either you or your vet should be able to see any of the above symptoms quite easily. The vet may also perform blood and urine tests to ensure none of your dog's organs have been damaged.

For more information on frostbite in dogs, visit our guide to Frostbite in Dogs..

How Do I Treat My Dog's Frostbite?

When it comes to treating your dog's frostbite, the most important step you can take is to have him examined by his vet. If you cannot do so immediately, here are a few things you can do until you can:


Treatment

  • Keep your dog warm and dry

  • If your dog is hypothermic, slowly wrap him in warm blankets to bring his core temperature back up

  • Use warm, not hot, water (104 to 108°F) to slowly warm the affected area

  • Pat the area dry once it has been warmed up

  • Keep your dog warm when traveling to the vet's office

The vet will examine your dog and treat him for any other conditions such as hypothermia or systemic shock.

  • He may administer medications for pain relief, as frostbite can be very painful.

  • He may give your dog antibiotics to avoid the risk of a secondary bacterial infection of skin and tissue.

  • In worst case scenarios, the vet may have to amputate the affected body part

Recovery

Prognosis and recovery will depend heavily on the extent of the damage caused by the frostbite.

  • Those dogs with a mild case should make a full recovery with the possibility of mild permanent damage to the affected area.

  • Dogs with more severe frostbite are likely to suffer from permanent disfiguration of the affected area.

  • Dogs with extreme frostbite are likely to have to undergo some level of surgical removal of the dead (necrotic) tissue or complete amputation.

For more information regarding treatment for frostbite, and to connect with a vet, check out Frostbite in Dogs.

How is Frostbite Similar in Dogs and Humans?

Dogs and humans share very similar symptoms when it comes to frostbite. The simple fact is that frostbite happens when skin and tissue freeze.

  • Both go through multiple stages of frostbite

  • Both can suffer permanent skin, tissue, and nerve damage

  • Both may have to undergo surgery to remove dead tissue

  • Both may need to have an extremity amputated if the frostbite is severe enough (dead tissue that is black in color along with a high risk of infection)

  • Both can succumb to frostbite from extended exposure to temperatures below 32°F.

How is Frostbite DIfferent in Dogs and Humans?

While most of the signs and symptoms of frostbite in dogs and humans are very similar, there are a few subtle differences. These include:

  • Dogs’ fur may protect their skin longer than humans, who don't have fur (or at least most of us don't)

  • Due to the amount of fur on most dogs, it can be harder to spot frostbite

  • Dogs are closer to the ground, making them more susceptible to frostbite

  • Most dogs don't like wearing booties to protect their feet

  • It takes far less time for necrosis to occur in dogs

Case Study

The weather outside has been below freezing for weeks and there is 3 feet of snow on the ground. You decide to take your dog out for a short walk to do his business. But, the walk took much longer than normal and now your dog is pawing at his ears and whining.

Upon examination, you notice the tips of his ears are a pale bluish white color and feel ice cold.

As his ears warm up they turn bright red and start to swell. This is an indication that your dog is in the first stages of frostbite. Fortunately, you have managed to warm his ears slowly using warm water and after a few hours, his ears seem to be back to their old selves.

 

You and your dog a lucky, as this means he should not suffer any long-term damage. If on the other hand, his ears have remained pale and started to show the first signs of tissue damage, a trip vet for further examination and possible treatment is in order.