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How To Treat Dog Frostbite - Facts, Treatment & Prevention

Posted by Lindsay Kustich on

How To Treat Dog Frostbite - Facts, Treatment & Prevention

Frostbite in dogs, should you be concerned?

With the unusually crazy cold temperatures this year whipping across the US- we thought we would do some research on frostbite and let you know what we found.

Just because your dog has a furry coat doesn't mean they're immune to the cold. In fact, dogs are susceptible to frostbite, just like people. Here's some key points you should be aware of  so you can understand, recognize, treat, and prevent frostbite in your dog.

What is Frostbite?

Frostbite is the injury or death of tissue that occurs when your dog spends too much time exposed to freezing or subfreezing temperatures. While large, double coated dogs generally tolerate cold well, any dog can suffer from frostbite if the conditions are right.

Your dog's coat helps insulate them from weather extremes. When your dog enters a cold environment, his coat traps the cold air close to him. His body heats the air and holds it close, helping to keep him warm. However, if he continues to be exposed to cold temperatures, a survival process starts up that interferes with this system.

As your dog's body temperature drops, his body responds by redirecting blood flow to his internal organs. This means his extremities, including his tail, ears, and scrotum, have less blood flowing to them. On one hand, this makes sense - your dog can survive without his ears, but not without his liver or heart. On the other hand, if his body temperature does not stabilize and he continues to be exposed to freezing temperatures, the tissues in his extremities can freeze and die. This is what we call frostbite.

The Three Stages of Frostbite 

Frostbite is generally characterized by three stages:

  • Stage One: Affected skin is very pale, and may take on a blue or white color. This is due to lack of blood flow to the tissues. It may also be cold or hard when touched. As the skin warms up, it may take on a reddish appearance.
  • Stage Two: If allowed to progress, the frostbitten skin will start to blister.
  • Stage Three: If this stage is reached, major damage has occured to your dog's skin. Over the next couple of days the affected area will turn dark or black and may start sloughing. This is a sign that the tissue is dead. It needs immediate care to prevent infection. If the damage is extremely bad, amputation may be necessary.

It is also important to note that frostbite is often accompanied by dangerously low body temperature. Hypothermia can be present in any stage of frostbite. Both issues require immediate attention.

Treating Frostbite in Dogs

If your dog has been exposed to long periods of dangerously cold temperatures, it is important to bring her/him inside immediately.

Your next step should be to call your veterinarian. He or she will tell you if you need to come in for a visit. In the meantime, your goal is to gradually warm up your dog.

The key thing to remember is that gradual warming is best. Resist the urge to rub your dog to warm her up. Rubbing can cause even more damage to frostbitten tissue, and it may even release accumulated toxins. This will just make the situation worse.

Help your dog warm up gradually by wrapping a layer of dry towels around her body. Wrap hot water bottles or heating pads in additional towels and place them close to her. Never lay them directly on her body - their heat can burn her skin.

Treat the frostbite affected skin by wetting it with warm (not hot!) water. Make sure the water is no hotter than 100 degrees. Gently submerge the area for about 20 minutes, then pat the area dry. Again, be careful not to rub. Keep an eye on the area and make note of any changes.

How Your Veterinarian Will Help Treat Your Dog's Frostbite

If your veterinarian has asked you to bring your dog in, be careful not to overheat the car during the trip. Again, warming your dog up slowly is the best solution.

Your vet's first step will be to treat any serious problems. It's possible for dogs to go into shock when exposed to extremely cold or wet conditions, so your vet will check for and treat this condition first. Then he may perform blood or urine tests to make sure there is no damage to your dog's organs. During this process, your vet will take steps to help stabilize your dog's temperature.

Thawing skin can be very painful for dogs. Your vet may administer a pain medication to help keep your pet more comfortable. If your vet suspects your dog may be at risk for infection, he may also administer an antibiotic.

Once your dog is stable, your vet will assess if any frostbitten tissue needs to be removed. Amputation may be necessary in extreme cases. Follow your vet's instructions for how to administer any necessary ointments or medications after treatment. 

How to Prevent Frostbite

Some breeds, such as Malamutes and Huskies, thrive in cold weather. Many others do not. Be aware of your dog's specific needs. If your dog does not tolerate cold weather well, keep her inside as much as possible.

If you plan to take your dog on a walk in cold weather, consider investing in a coat or jacket. Booties can also help protect her paws from cold and blisters. Talk to your vet to learn more about the right level of cold protection for your dog.

Water exposure in cold weather can be another risk factor for frostbite and hypothermia. If your dog gets wet, bring her inside immediately and take steps to dry her off and warm her up.

Regardless of your dog's breed, never leave them tied up outside for long stretches in cold weather. If they seem to tolerate and enjoy the cold weather, always give them the option to come back inside whenever they wish.

Frostbite can be a serious and dangerous condition for any dog. Fortunately, if you act quickly and follow the right steps you can lessen the chances of serious damage. Be alert whenever your dog has been outside in cold weather, and you'll both be able to enjoy the best that winter has to offer.