Frostbites in Dogs — Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

dog frostbites

Frostbites in dogs is a dangerous condition that should be taken seriously and treated immediately. When frostbites occur on a dog, blood vessels near the skin begin to constrict and narrow down.

This is to preserve the body’s core temperature by allowing the supply of blood to reach the core unit of the body over colder extremities. This is the body’s innate way of survival. The body does this in order to protect the most vital organs of the body, by allowing the blood to flow to these essential organs in order to prevent death.

What Are Frostbites on Dogs?

Frostbites on dogs, or also commonly referred to as congelatio, is the term used to describe the condition in which tissue and skin on a dog are damaged due to subfreezing temperatures. Generally, a dog’s coat acts to insulate heat during the wintertime. If the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, loss of blood flow coupled with the cold may cause irreparable damage to frozen tissue.

Where Are Dog Frostbites Most Likely to Appear?

Dog frostbites are more likely to appear in the extremities of the body such as the paws, the tail, and the ears. Other areas in which a dog can get frostbite are in the scrotum, nose, and nipples. These are the most common tissues to be affected by frostbite as they are more sensitive to the subzero temperatures than other parts of the body.

Especially if a dog is wet or damp, these parts of the body are much more vulnerable to the extremely low temperatures. These areas tend to be much thinner and contain less fat than other areas of the body. The lack of fat in these extremities provides very minimum insulation to help keep the dog warm in the colder weather. The other areas of the body are bigger and usually, contain a good amount of cushion as protection from these adverse conditions. The blood flow through the vessels not only provides the necessary oxygen to keep the organism alive, but it also provides heat.

dog frostbites and hypothermia
Dog owners must be careful during winter as frostbites are often a sign of canine hypothermia.

How To Prevent Frostbites on Dogs?

The best preventative measures one can take for dog frostbites is to keep the dog out of extremely cold temperatures where he will be more vulnerable to suffer a case of frostbite and buy him warm clothing. If you happen to be in the snow or in an extremely cold place, frostbite in dogs can be preventable by lessening the exposure to the temperature by allowing the dog to go indoors every now and then.

Winter Clothing

Various dog apparel is sold on the market that can certainly decrease the chances of dog frostbite.

You can purchase warm coats, dog snoods and neck warmers, hats, boots, and socks in order to sustain their blow flow in order to keep them warm, especially for those types of breeds who tend to have thinner coats or are more sensitive to cold conditions such as the smaller breeds.

Avoid Some Drugs

Some medications, such as beta-blockers for example, and certain health conditions such as diabetes, increase the risk of frostbite on dogs. Heart diseases and other medical issues that impair the blood flow also increase the chances. If your dog suffers from any such diseases, then they should not be exposed to the cold for long periods of time. Senior dogs of an older age should also be taken into consideration as they are more susceptible to the cold as well.

Diet Considerations

In addition, you can help your dog prevent frostbite by helping to maintain a great caloric consumption to fuel their bodies acting as a furnace to circulate heat in their bodies. Keep your dogs well hydrated at all times and always check their water source is not freezing. If your dog is an outside dog, provide outdoor housing shelter that keeps them well insulated and protected from cold, wind, and rain with adequate ventilation.

What Are the Symptoms of Frostbites in Dogs?

There are several signs in which one can detect frostbites in dogs including:

  • icy extremities,
  • tissue discoloration,
  • shaking or shivering,
  • blisters,
  • swelling,
  • pain, and
  • brittle areas.

A dog’s extremities contain warm blood that systematically flows. However, when the warm blood leaves those areas or is drastically reduced due to the cold, the tissue begins to freeze and eventually dies out. This ultimately leads to loss of tissue and limbs such as feet, ears and even tails.

Canine frostbite is a serious issue and a dog’s body temperature during extremely cold temperatures should always be monitored.

The snow and frosty seasons may pose a risk to your dog so watch for symptoms of frostbites on dogs such as the skin becoming very pale often displaying a blueish white hue. This is an indication of lack of blood flow. When you touch the affected place in question, it will feel cold and brittle and it may cause pain in the dog.

Once you notice the common signs of dog frostbites and it is obvious your dog is suffering, immediate action must be taken as it can lead to eventual cut off of blood flow. After treating this condition by warming up the affected area, it will become red as blood flow continues to make its way back, and you may notice some swelling and peel in the area.

paw and ear frostbites on dogs
Examples of paw and ear frostbites on dogs.

How Are Canine Frostbites Diagnosed?

In a professional diagnosis, a veterinarian will examine the affected area very closely looking to see the current state of the tissue in the surrounding area. The exam will also take into consideration the amount of time the dog was exposed to the extreme temperatures. In order to assess if any internal damage has been done by the frostbite, blood tests and a urinalysis will be conducted.

A personal diagnosis can be made on the spot as soon as the affected dog shows any of the common symptoms of canine frostbite even before any medical attention is sought.

Evolution of Dog Frostbites

In most cases, you will have to be vigilant and look for the warning signs including the discoloration of the affected body part, swelling, skin ulcers or skin that is blackened and dead.

Once the condition has worsened and the tissue has died you will notice a dark blue and black color, a foul smell, pus forming, and a secondary bacterial infection.

After a period of several days, you will notice the skin begin to fall off. Ensure your dog does not go into hypothermia as this can prove to have fatal consequences.

In this case, watch for signs of hypothermia such as extremely low body temperature, lethargy, stiff movements, excessive shivering, and shallow breathing. In any case, always seek medical attention as soon as possible and do not wait when in doubt.

How To Treat Frostbites on Dogs?

To treat frostbites in dogs, the first thing you must do is take your dog out of the cold and into a warm place that is dry (e.g. use heaters for kennels). If you suspect hypothermia is present, then wrap your dog with dry towels along with heating pads and water bottles that are wrapped as to avoid burning.

After your dog is dry and warm, you may begin treating the affected area with warm water. Do not exceed warm water temperatures higher than 108 degrees Fahrenheit. You can lightly pat the area but never rub or squeeze it.

Keep in mind to constantly monitor the dog’s temperature every few minutes. Do this until his body temperature begins to stabilize. Once the temperature is restored, stop taking measures to warm him and take him to the vet. Never use hot or scalding water nor should you never try to treat the affected area while still out in the cold. The subsequent refreezing and warming procedure will inadvertently cause more damage to the tissue.

What To Avoid?

Many people mistakenly believe that you should submerge dogs into a bath but do not do this as this can cause the body temperature to actually decrease more. Finally, do not give your dog any medications nor pain relievers in an attempt to soothe him as most are toxic to dogs.

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Check out the best dog house heaters and heating pads!

How Do Vets Treat Dog Frostbites?

The vet will go to work on your dog right away and take care of the most serious issues first such as any injuries that were sustained, shock, or hypothermia. Blood tests and a urinalysis will be performed to check for damage within the internal organs. The vet will apply the necessary warmth as needed in order to normalize the body temperature of the patient.

Once all the exams and tests have been thoroughly performed and analyzed, and judging by his or her condition on whether it is a mild or extreme case, the vet will begin the treatment process. In most cases, frostbite conditions are mild.

In cases of mild frostbite in dogs, healing is usually done on its own without needing additional medical assistance or intervention. If the dog gets to go home, you may have to administer antibiotics or give your dog some ointment for the affected area. These mild cases only leave a little bit of permanent damage. In more severe cases, frostbites in dogs can cause disfigurements in the tissue.

Worst case scenario, in the most extreme cases, surgical amputation of the dead tissue may have to be performed. If a large area of the body is affected by the frostbite, amputation may be required. The prognosis in canine frostbite very much depends on the overall size of the body that is affected. This is why it is imperative that these types of situations are handled quickly and efficiently.

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