Recognizing and Treating Frostbite in Dogs

A dog’s coat helps insulate against cold weather, but extreme cold can cause frostbite. Know the symptoms and treatment options in case of an emergency.

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Extreme cold can be deadly for dogs. By: La Tarte au Citron

Most of our furry friends have coats to protect them against weather extremes, but sometimes fur is not enough.

Although large, double-coated dogs are used to the cold, smaller dogs or those with thin or hairless coats can suffer immediate distress.

Dogs can experience frostbite in cold temperatures and will need immediate care.

What Is Frostbite?

A dog’s coat acts as insulation to weather extremes. When cold sets in, the fur can trap cold air, which will then be heated by the body. If the dog is still exposed to cold or the temperature drops further, the body starts a survival process.

The internal organs must be receiving warm blood to continue working. As the body temperature begins to drop, the body responds by constricting warm blood from extremities (tail, ears, etc.) until the body temperature can be stabilized. It’s the body’s way of deciding which organs and processes are essential and which it can do without. A dog can lose a limb and still live, but the loss of liver or heart function is deadly.

If the body temperature does not stabilize, frostbite can develop.

Symptoms

Once warm blood leaves the extremities, the tissue can freeze. After the tissue is frozen, it dies — and this can lead to loss of tissue and even limbs, such as toes, feet, tails and ears.

Symptoms of frostbite include:

  • Ice on parts of the body
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Tissue discoloration
  • Pain when touched
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Brittle areas

Tissue discoloration is one obvious symptom of frostbite in dogs. The tissue or extremity will appear pale and may have a blue or gray hue. This change is a result of the blood leaving the area. If the area is treated, the skin turns red and may be accompanied by swelling, peeling or both.

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Tissues that do not get treated by first aid or by the body temperature being restored will begin to die. The area will change color to dark blue and then black as the tissue becomes necrotic. After the tissue dies, it is common for it to fall off after several days or weeks. Pus or a foul smell may also be present in the event of a secondary bacterial infection.

It is possible for dogs to shut down because of fear or shock. Try to remain calm so you don’t further upset or scare the dog.

This video shows the effects of trauma after the dog fell through thin ice:

How to Treat Frostbite

The first goal of treating frostbite in dogs is to get the dog out of the cold and into a warm, dry area.

If hypothermia is present, treat it first by wrapping dry towels around the body of the dog. Water bottles or heating pads should be wrapped with towels before placing them near the body since the heat can burn the skin. A dog weak from the cold might not be able to react to the burn.

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After wrapping the dog with towels and/or applying gentle heat, you can treat the affected limb or area with warm water no higher than 108 degrees Fahrenheit/42 degrees Celsius. Pat the area dry, but be careful not to rub the skin or affected tissue.

Pay attention to the following instructions to ensure the dog has the best chance for recovery.

Do:

  • Treat hypothermia first
  • Gently warm the affected areas with warm water, never hot water above 108 degrees F/42 degrees C
  • Use dry, warm towels to wrap the body and pat dry the affected tissue
  • Monitor the dog’s temperature every few minutes until the body temperature is stabilized
  • Stop warming the dog when temperature is restored, then head to the nearest veterinary/emergency clinic

Don’t:

  • Use hot or scalding water
  • Apply heating pads or hot water bottles to bare skin or fur
  • Use a hair dryer
  • Rub the affected area
  • Try to warm a frostbitten area while it is still exposed to the cold — the warming and refreezing of the tissue can cause more damage
  • Submerge a dog in a bath — this causes the body temperature to decrease
  • Give the dog any medication or pain relievers — many household medicines are toxic to dogs

What the Veterinarian Will Do

Your vet will treat serious problems first, such as shock, hypothermia and injuries.

After an examination, blood or urine tests may be performed to check for damage to internal organs. Warmth will be applied if needed to further stabilize the dog’s body temperature.

The vet will administer pain medication if necessary, because thawing tissues can be extremely painful for the dog. Antibiotics may also be administered to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections.

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After the vet has stabilized the dog and administered initial treatment, surgical removal of tissue or limbs may be required. If the dog is allowed to go home, you may have to apply ointment or administer antibiotics for days or weeks following the frostbite. Be sure to talk with the vet about how, when and how much to apply.

By acting quickly and correctly, you can minimize permanent damage and provide a good chance for recovery.

Additional Resources:

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, is an author, poet and pet lover from Louisiana. She is the author of an award-nominated book, One Unforgettable Journey, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. She was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. She is also employed as chief operating officer for a large mental health practice in Louisiana. Kristine has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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