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The Chilling Truth About Dog Frostbite

Yep, all those warnings your mom gave you as a kid apply to your dog, too. Learn how to keep your pup safe in the cold.

by Sio Hornbuckle
Updated December 19, 2022
A couple bundled up for winter standing outside in the snow with their dog.
Photo: Nikita Sursin / Stocksy

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Most of us are at least a little familiar with frostbite; we’ve been warned throughout our lives not to stay out in the cold too long, lest the vampiric-sounding “frostbite” set in. According to Dr. Tammy Hunter and Dr. Ernest Ward, frostbite occurs when the temperature drops below freezing and blood vessels close to our skin start to constrict to preserve our core body temperature. In extreme cold or when we’re outside for long periods, this can reduce blood flow in some areas of the body, allowing them to freeze and causing severe tissue energy. And it’s not unique to humans — our pups are at risk, too.

Clinical Signs of Frostbite

Per Dr. Ward, the signs associated with frostbite include:

  • discoloration of the affected area of skin — often pale, gray, or blue

  • coldness and/or brittleness of the area when touched.

  • pain when you touch the affected area.

  • swelling of the affected area.

  • blisters or skin ulcers.

  • areas of blackened or dead skin.

As frostbitten tissues thaw, they may become red and very painful due to inflammation. The clinical signs of frostbite may take several days to appear, especially if the affected area is small, such as the tip of the tail or ears. Severely frostbitten areas will become necrotic (when body tissue dies). As the tissue starts to die, it changes to a dark blue to black color; then, over a period of several days to weeks, it falls off. Dogs with heart disease, diabetes mellitus, or other conditions that cause reduced blood flow to the extremities are at greater risk for frostbite.

How Frostbite Is Treated

Per Dr. Hunter, if you suspect your dog has frostbite, you should seek medical attention immediately.

In the meantime, you can do the following:

  • Move your dog to a warm, dry area as quickly and as safely as possible.

  • If your dog is suffering from hypothermia or low core body temperature, treat the hypothermia first. Slowly wrap their body in warm, dry towels or blankets and place hot water bottles wrapped in towels near their body.

  • You may carefully warm the affected area with warm water. The recommended water temperature is 104 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit At this temperature, you should be able to comfortably place your hand in the warm water. You may apply warm water compresses or soak the affected area in a bowl of warm water.

  • After you have warmed the area, pat them dry carefully and thoroughly.

  • While traveling to your veterinarian for further medical treatment, keep your dog warm by wrapping them in dry towels or blankets that have been warmed in the clothes dryer.

Things you should not do:

  • Do not rub the affected area.

  • Do not warm a frostbitten area if you cannot keep it warm. Additional cold exposure or refreezing will more severely injure the tissues.

  • Do not rub your dog with towels.

  • Do not use hot water. If the water is too hot, you may cause more damage than not using any water at all.

  • Do not use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer.

  • Do not give any pain medication unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian. Many human pain relievers can be toxic to dogs.

Treatment

Dr. Ward: Your veterinarian will examine your dog and treat any other conditions, especially systemic shock or hypothermia. Because the thawing tissues are extremely painful, your dog will probably be given pain medication. Antibiotics are used to prevent secondary bacterial skin infections. In severe cases, some dogs will require amputation of the affected body part.

Prognosis

Dr. Hunter: The prognosis for frostbite depends on the extent of your dog’s injuries. Mild cases of frostbite usually resolve with little permanent damage, but more severe frostbite may result in permanent disfiguration or alteration of the affected tissues. In extreme cases, amputation or surgical removal of the dead tissues is required. Your veterinarian will discuss the appropriate diagnostic and treatment plan for your dog.

Source: VCA

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Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.