With winter quickly approaching, many areas of the nation are already seeing sub-freezing temperatures and even snowfall. Like humans, dogs are as risk for cold-related conditions such as hypothermia (low body temperature) and frostbite. As a dog owner, knowing how to recognize the signs of frostbite in dogs can help you keep your pet safe when the mercury dips.
What Is Frostbite?
When we are exposed to sub-freezing temperatures, our bodies attempt to conserve heat by limiting blood flow to areas that are farthest from the heart and most vulnerable to heat loss. This helps warm our core and reduces unwanted cooling by keeping blood away from areas where heat loss is greatest (such as the fingers, toes, ears, and nose).
In dogs, prolonged exposure to cold causes blood to retreat from the extremities such as the toes, ears, and tail. When cold exposure is prolonged, capillary blood flow to cells in these areas may become so restricted that tissues receive less blood than they need to live. In extreme cases, this can lead to tissue damage, and even necrosis (tissue death), sometimes requiring amputation of the affected area. In extreme cases the internal organs can also be affected.
Signs of Frostbite in Dogs
Knowing what to look for can help you spot the signs of frostbite early, before the condition becomes acute. In dogs, symptoms include:
Cold skin that may appear gray or bluish
Joint stiffness or clumsiness (decreased blood flow often results in numbness)
Pain or tenderness in the affected area (as frostbite continues to rob tissues of blood flow, they may become painful to the touch)
Swelling of the affected area (due to edema)
Blistering or skin ulcers
Areas of blackened, dead tissue (in severe cases)
Remember that symptoms of frostbite can appear even days after the original cold exposure, so vigilance is key.
Frostbite First-Aid and Treatment
If you notice signs of frostbite in your animal, get your pet to a warm place as soon as is safely possible. If your pet is hypothermic (has a low body temperature), wrap the animal in blankets to improve core heat retention.
Attempt to warm an area outdoors unless you can keep it warm—refreezing injuries can complicate frostbite cases.
Rub the area to stimulate blood flow. Frostbitten skin and the tissues beneath can be very painful
Warm your animal with direct heat such as a heating pad or hairdryer. Never use hot water to warm your animal (though lukewarm water allows tissues to warm and recover slowly)
Administer any medications unless directed by your veterinarian
Finally, take your pet to the vet as soon as possible!
Which Dogs Are at Greatest Risk for Frostbite?
Generally, the larger an animal’s body mass, the lower the frostbite risk. Small dogs are at greater risk for frostbite, and if your animal is wet or damp as well as cold, the effects of frostbite can set in more quickly and may be more severe. Dogs with diabetes (or any condition affecting blood flow) are also at increased risk for experiencing frostbite.
The best prevention for frostbite is to avoid prolonged exposure to sub-freezing temps. Also, avoid letting your pet get wet while outdoors on cold days, as this will only increase the hypothermic effects of frostbite. If you live in an area where cold temps are the norm, consider investing in some winter dog gear—like booties. These can protect your animal from ice buildup between the toe pads, which can speed frostbite. If you do notice signs of frostbite in your dog, get to a warm place as soon as possible and contact your vet. Early intervention is key to improved outcomes.
Editor’s Note: Brrrrr…the temperatures drop below freezing, snow falls, and the days are shorter. These ten winter dog care tips can help you protect your pooch from the elements.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.