Frostbite in Dogs

Picture of a puppy in the snow

Cold temperature exposure for a long time can be detrimental for all animals, from dogs to cats. Usually, frostbite in dogs can happen when pets are exposed to temperatures under 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).

In today’s article, we’re looking at what frostbite is, where it’s more likely to show up on a dog’s body, its symptoms, and a wide range of other interesting facts about it (including how to prevent it).

What is frostbite in dogs?

If you take your dog out for a walk and the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you do not have to worry about your pooch getting frostbite, at least if you keep moving for 20-30 minutes and then return home.

Dogs are equipped with a protective mechanism largely relying on blood circulation, which causes the blood vessels that are close to the skin to constrict so as to maintain core body temperature for as long as possible.

In an attempt to protect the important internal organs, a dog’s body can constrict the skin blood vessels to such an extent that some areas of the body, particularly the animal’s extremities, can suffer from a lower blood flow than usual.

When this happens, those body parts can effectively freeze.

What body areas are more exposed to frostbite?

The short answer to this question is the dog’s extremities. This means that the parts that are more likely to freeze in extremely cold temperatures are the pet’s paws, tail, as well as its ears.

Causes of frostbite in dogs

Frostbite can be caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. So, as we noted above, it’s practically impossible for your dog to develop this health issue if you merely take him or her out for a walk that lasts for 20-30 minutes.

It’s also worth noting that frostbite tends to affect animals that sit in the same place for longer. For example, if your dog were to escape and get lost, and after roaming for several hours, he/she would get tired and try to rest in the snow, the chance of your pet developing frostbite through the night would be higher.

On top of everything, some dogs are more exposed to this problem, such as those that have diabetes mellitus or heart conditions, geriatric pets, or those that are small or have short hair (which can’t protect their skin properly). Wet fur can freeze much faster than dry fur, which can be another potential cause of quick frostbite development.

Symptoms of frostbite in dogs

The most significant challenge of frostbite is that it can sometimes cause no clinical signs for a number of days. If your dog has secretly developed it, you might notice that his or her paws or ears get slightly swollen, are paler than usual, or his/her extremities feel cold to the touch even when it’s warm indoors.

Other mild symptoms range from the presence of blisters or ulcers on the skin of the pet’s extremities, black skin tissue, or pain in the same body areas.

Severe frostbite in dogs can have other symptoms, such as the following:

  • Necrotic tissue (dark blue or black)
  • Abscesses on the affected areas
  • The presence of pus or serous secretions on the tips of the ears, paws, or tail
  • Foul smell
  • Additional bacterial infections

Frostbite is also associated with hypothermia, which is characterized by the following clinical signs:

  • Intense shivering
  • Lethargy
  • Low body temperature (below 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Shallow breathing
  • Reluctance to move

Diagnosis and treatment

If you suspect that your dog has developed frostbite, you should take your pooch to the vet clinic as soon as possible. Some cases can be so severe that the dog might lose their extremities (partially or completely), but this typically happens with ear parts and the tail tip. It can sometimes happen with a dog’s foot (or both) if the tissue is very damaged.

A clinical examination is usually sufficient for a clear diagnosis, but the veterinarian will additionally recommend tests such as a urinalysis, a complete blood count, and biochemical tests. These are all necessary in order to find out whether the rest of the body organs and systems were affected, too, not just the dog’s extremities.

Most mild frostbite cases can be treated effectively and in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, severe cases are usually associated with permanent disfigurement, and sometimes, the amputation of the affected tissues can be a solution, especially if they tend to become infected time and again. Your veterinarian will recommend the appropriate therapy and perhaps prescribe pain medication, as well as antibiotics.

Treating your dog at home is also possible, but you have to be able to make the difference between mild and severe frostbite. Use the symptoms that we have mentioned above to tell whether your dog requires immediate treatment at the vet clinic or not.

Keep your dog in a warm and dry area. You can wrap him or her in a blanket (preferably an electric one) and fill up bottles with hot water and place them on the towels/blanket (not directly on your dog’s skin).

You can also use compresses that you have soaked in warm water to gently keep your dog’s paws and tail warm. Once you’ve done this for ten minutes, gently pat the areas dry (they shouldn’t remain wet).

Avoid giving your dog human-grade pain or anti-inflammatory medication unless you’ve talked to your vet on the phone, and they said that the product was safe. Also, avoid putting too much pressure or energetically rubbing your dog’s affected areas.

How quickly do dogs recover from frostbite?

There isn’t a clear answer to this question as frostbite can uniquely affect dogs based on their physical features, pre-existing medical conditions, and also depending on the outside temperature. Mild cases can heal over the course of one to two weeks with the right care and attention.

Severe cases, on the other hand, require different treatment, and recovery can take longer, especially if one of the dog’s extremities has to be amputated.

Preventing frostbite in dogs

The easiest way to prevent frostbite in your canine friend is to make sure that he or she never gets to spend more than a limited time outdoors in extremely low temperatures. Check the weather and walk your dog on a leash if you know they’re an escape artist.

Needless to say, when the weather is very cold, you should consider keeping your dog indoors (even if he/she usually lives outdoors). The least you could do would be to buy an outdoor heated dog house or get several electric blankets and place them in your regular dog house through the night.

Clean your yard for ice and snow as best as possible so that your dog has a lower chance of developing frostbite. You can also equip your dog with specially made boots, although you might have to go through some trial and error before finding some that actually fit your dog’s paws.

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