4 min read
How Do I Tell if My Dog Has Frostbite?
By Wag! Staff
Published: 01/25/2023, edited: 01/25/2023
Save on pet insurance for your pet
You don't have to choose between your pet and your wallet when it comes to expensive vet visits. Prepare ahead of time for unexpected vet bills by finding the pawfect pet insurance.
Even on the most frigid days, your dog wants their daily walk! With your pup's warm fur coat, they may seem almost invincible to the blustering cold. Cold weather breeds like Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and German Shepherds seem to thrive in sub-zero temps. But even the burliest, most thick-coated doggos face some dangers from being in the cold for extended periods of time.
Next time you see your pal lifting their paws in the snow, you may wonder if dogs can get frostbite?
Can dogs get frostbite?
Yes! Dogs can get frostbite. Just like humans, canines can suffer permanent skin, tissue, and nerve damage from being exposed to temperatures below 32°F for an extended period of time or from being submerged in freezing water. A dog's fur may protect their skin longer than humans, but this also makes it more difficult to spot symptoms. The fact that dogs are closer to the ground also makes them more susceptible to frostbite.
The most common places for dogs to get frostbite are the tips of their ears, the tips of their tails, and their paws. Frostbite is due to the body’s biological response to cold temperatures, as the blood vessels constrict and direct blood flow away from the extremities to keep the dog’s vital organs warm. Restricting blood flow to extremities can allow the tissue in these areas to freeze, resulting in significant tissue damage.
Extreme cases of frostbite can lead to tissue death, also called necrosis, and can continue to spread even after the dog warms up and lead to chunks of skin or even parts of the body falling off. If left untreated, it can lead to bacterial infections and amputations, which is why it is extremely important for any dog experiencing frostbite to get professional veterinary care right away.
How can you tell if your dog is developing frostbite?
How do I tell if my dog has frostbite?
Frostbite can occur in as little as 15 minutes or take several hours or days to develop, and can present an assortment of symptoms ranging in severity from mild to life-threatening.
Common symptoms of frostbite
Below are some of the symptoms vets see most commonly in dogs with frostbite.
- Visible changes in skin color (skin may be bright red, pale, blue, gray, or black)
- Skin that’s frigid to the touch
- Pain in the affected area
- Blisters or sores
- Localized tissue inflammation (swelling)
- Tissue death
- Sloughing off of tissue
- Secondary infections due to open wounds
- Limping on affected paws
- Increased sensitivity to touch in affected areas
Degrees of frostbite
Much like burns, there are three stages of frostbite, which experts measure in “degrees”. The degree or severity of frostbite depends on the layers of skin that are affected.
- Frostnip (first-degree frostbite) - Mildest type of frostbite that only affects the outermost surface of a dog’s skin and typically only causes skin discoloration (red or pale) and discomfort.
- Superficial frostbite (second-degree frostbite) - Moderate condition that involves the freezing of the top two layers of a dog’s skin. Requires veterinary care for treatment that depends on the symptom severity and whether there are underlying conditions that affect blood flow or wound healing.
- Deep frostbite (third-degree frostbite) - The most dangerous form of frostbite affects the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue and requires immediate veterinary care. When these tissues freeze, the cellular fluid inside the dog’s tissue cells harden and burst, resulting in necrosis. Wounds from deep frostbite can develop a bacterial infection. Can be fatal and often requires medication, medical warming procedures, and surgery for tissue removal or amputation.
What should I do if my dog gets frostbite?
Knowing how to apply first aid to a frostbite injury can limit tissue damage and prevent tissue loss. Unfortunately, some well-meaning pet parents do more harm than good by using direct heating methods and other tactics which can further damage body tissues. Below are the dos and don’ts for frostbite first aid.
- The first thing you should do is bring the animal inside and asses them.
- Warm your pet gently and gradually with indirect heating methods like using freshly dried blankets or placing the dog in a lukewarm bath.
- Bundle them up in warm blankets and seek immediate veterinary care once your dog is stable.
- Rub your dog’s skin to dry, warm, or calm them as this can exacerbate tissue damage.
- Put your dog in a hot bath or use hair dryers or heating pads to warm them.
- Place your dog outside after warming them up as this can drastically increase the odds of tissue necrosis.
- Give medication to your pet unless a vet advises you to do so, and never offer them human painkillers like Tylenol, aspirin, or ibuprofen.
Tips for preventing frostbite
Dogs love playing outside no matter the temperature, but frolicking in the winter weather carries risks. Luckily, there are several things you can do to minimize your furry friend's risk of frostbite.
- Avoid prolonged exposure to cold weather.
- Limit or avoid taking walks or being outdoors in frigid temperatures.
- Don’t leave Fido in a cold vehicle during the winter months.
- Avoid walking on frozen lakes.
- Invest in dog boots as paws are often the first areas to experience frostbite.
- Get your dog a good-quality waterproof jacket with a hood to protect vulnerable skin and ears.
- Feed your dog high-quality dog food to boost their metabolism and help them combat the cold naturally.
- Keep your dog dry as wet weather and snow put dogs at higher risk of frostbite.
- Make sure your dog has access to fresh water at all times.
- If your dog stays outside, regularly check and refill outdoor water supplies to prevent them from freezing over, provide an insulated shelter with a sturdy foundation to keep them off the ground and thick, warm bedding or an outdoor heated pet bed. You can also provide a heater explicitly made for dog houses, but do not use heat lamps which can cause burns and fires.
- Schedule regular vet visits during the winter months. Arthritis, for instance, can lead to dogs laying down on the cold ground more often which could make dogs more susceptible to frostbite. Dogs with untreated illnesses that affect blood flow, such as heart disease and diabetes, are more likely to get frostbite, according to the Veterinary Centers of America.
- For even more tips on safely walking your dog in the cold, check out 13 Tips for Walking Your Dog in the Winter.
It doesn’t take long in freezing temperatures for dogs to start exhibiting signs of frostbite. If your area is home to harsh winter weather, take steps to ensure your dog stays safe.