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Just because dogs have fur doesn't mean they can't get frostbite!

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
November 26, 2020
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Frostbite is an injury to body parts exposed to extreme cold. And just like humans, dogs can get it, too. The condition can range from mild to severe, depending on the size and health condition of your dog, as well as the duration of time she is exposed to the cold temps.

What Causes Frostbite in Dogs?

Any temperature below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) has the potential to cause frostbite, but generally, temperatures have to be lower for serious problems. A low temperature combined with being wet from rain, snow, or swimming can also lead to a higher risk for frostbite.

Small dogs, puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with short hair coats are at highest risk for getting frostbite, along with any dog that gets wet in cold temperatures.

Northern breeds, such as Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies, and Samoyeds are at lower risk for frostbite and often enjoy being outside in cold weather. However, all dogs can get frostbite in extreme conditions, so it's best to be cautious when venturing out in the winter time.

When the cold starts to affect your dog’s body, he will shift blood flow to the essential internal organs. Extremities, such as paws (especially the pads), ears, and tails get less blood flow and will chill faster. For intact male dogs, the scrotum can also be at risk for frostbite. Long, thin tails like an Italian greyhound has are at higher risk than fluffy tails like on a collie. Hair can also provide some protection for ears, so a German shepherd dog has lower risk of ear frostbite than a bull terrier. Even fur can’t prevent all frostbite, however, especially if the skin gets wet.

Chocolate lab puppy plays in snow
Credit: Francis Fraioli / Getty

Signs and Symptoms of Dog Frostbite

There are several stages you might notice depending on the severity of your dog’s frostbite. Symptoms vary depending on the severity of your dog’s condition.

Mild Frostbite

Areas with less blood flow may appear grayish or pale and feel cold to the touch. Your dog may flinch or show pain when you touch those areas. If the paw pads are affected, your dog may be lame or lick his feet. Once those areas start to warm up as blood recirculates at normal levels, the affected areas may turn red and swell. They are usually painful to touch at this time. If the case is more moderate, there may be fluid discharge and small ulcers may develop on the affected tissue.

Severe Frostbite

Over time, severely affected areas will turn black and the skin will harden and dry up. This could be a week or more after the initial injury. You might notice an odor or a pus-like discharge. This is from infection growing in the dying and dead tissue. Eventually, the area will turn brittle and slough or break off in the case of ear or tail tips. Frostbite is also considered to be dry gangrene.

How to Treat Frostbite in Dogs

If you feel your dog has frostbite, do not rub the areas to try to increase circulation. You will actually cause more damage. Instead, gently hold a warm (not hot!) towel over the areas you are concerned about to form a warm compress, as you want to slowly warm up the potentially damaged tissues. If your dog is shivering, wrap her in a warm towel.

If large areas are affected, you might want to consult your veterinarian about pain medications. Do not use human medications without asking your veterinarian as some are toxic to pets.

If affected areas progress to dry gangrene, your vet may also prescribe antibiotics to deal with any infection. Severely affected tissues may break off on their own or may even require amputation to prevent further spread.

Preventing Frostbite

It is always better to prevent frostbite in the first place than to have to treat it! If your dog will be outside for any length of time in cold weather, make sure she has shelter from the wind and precipitation. This is important even for northern dog breeds who enjoy cold weather and snow.

Dogs at high risk for frostbite should wear coats, jackets, or sweaters. If it is windy, plan on windproof outfits. On wet days, waterproof dog clothes like rain coats and booties can help keep paws warm. Many dogs won’t tolerate a hat to keep ears warm or a tail wrap, so if this is the case for your dog, simply plan on very short outings. You might even want to consider the use of absorbent pee pads inside for high-risk dogs when it is extremely cold out rather than taking them outside to relieve themselves.