Frostbite in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Frostbite occurs when parts of the body freeze after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Severe cases cause death or damage to affected tissues in dogs. 

• Frostbite mostly affects body parts farthest from the heart, especially paws, ears, and tail

• Risk of frostbite increases with moisture and wind

• Symptoms include but are not limited to: redness, swelling, blisters, and skin discoloration

• Symptoms of frostbite appear anywhere from immediately after exposure to days later

• Diagnosis consists of a physical exam, bloodwork, ECG, urinalysis, and/or biopsy

• Treatment, prognosis, and recovery time all depend on the severity of frostbite and if there are any secondary complications

• Treatment options include warming the patient, pain medication, antibiotics, and surgery

• Frostbite can affect any dog, but with diligent planning, it is avoidable

A Closer Look: What is Frostbite in Dogs?

Frostbite in dogs is not often fatal, but can result in permanent damage. In addition, frostbite is often accompanied by hypothermia which can be life threatening when left untreated. Prompt veterinary care is recommended if frostbite is suspected.

Frostbite is separated into two categories and has four degrees of severity. 

Superficial frostbite is divided into first and second degree and affects the superficial layers of the skin. These are more mild cases and leave little to no permanent damage. 

Deep frostbite is divided into third and fourth degree and affects the deeper skin tissues, often leaving lasting damage. Fourth degree results in gangrene. Gangrene associated with frostbite is from a lack of blood flow to an area resulting in tissue death.

First or second degree frostbite resolves in two to three weeks. Third or fourth degree frostbite can leave lifelong damage and in rare cases lead to death.

Risk Factors

Frostbite is also often accompanied by hypothermia, another condition caused by exposure to temperatures below freezing. Hypothermia is when the body cannot maintain adequate heat for vital functioning, and is often fatal if left untreated.

Gangrenous tissue can spread and become infected, producing systemic inflammation which can be fatal. Symptoms include fever, dizziness, confusion, and lethargy.

Frostbite is rare in dogs. In extreme conditions, it takes as little as 15 minutes for frostbite to occur. 

Dogs most at risk of frostbite are:

• Small or toy breeds

• Shorthaired or hairless breeds

• Juveniles 

• Senior dogs

• Dogs with pre existing with conditions like heart disease and diabetes mellitus

• Outdoor working dogs like sled dogs

• Dogs housed outdoors in climates with extreme cold weather

Any dog breed can be affected by frostbite, but there is lower risk of frostbite in dog breeds that originate in colder climates such as huskies or malamutes.

Due to lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, there is a higher risk of frostbite at temperatures closer to zero degrees celsius (32°F) in these regions. The risk of frostbite also increases with moisture and wind.

Possible Causes

Frostbite is caused by exposure to temperatures below freezing. At colder temperatures, the blood retreats to the vital organs to preserve function, leaving the extremities more vulnerable to the cold. Due to this, frostbite most often affects the paws, ears, nose, tail, and scrotum. Without blood flow, the tissues in these areas lose heat and freeze, leading to tissue damage or death.

Main Symptoms

Symptoms of superficial frostbite:

• Redness 

• Swelling 

• Numbness 

• Blisters

Symptoms of deep frostbite:

• Complete desensitization

• Deep blistering

• Intense skin discolouration (dark blue, red or black)

Other symptoms include:

• Stiffness

• Clumsiness

• Low body temperature

Testing and Diagnosis

Diagnostic tools include

• Physical exam

• Blood work

• Urinalysis

• EKG

• Biopsy 

In many cases a diagnosis is reached with a physical exam alone as many of the symptoms of frostbite are external. Further testing provides a definite diagnosis, determines the extent of the damage, and if there are secondary complications.

Steps to Recovery

First steps aim to gently warm the body back to normal temperature. Strategies include

• Towel drying any wet skin and hair 

• Wrapping the body in dry warm towels or blankets and place hot water bottles wrapped in towels nearby

Note: gentle warming is critical in cases of suspected frostbite or hypothermia. Sudden, extreme changes in temperature can result in life threatening shock.

As hypothermia occurs in the same conditions as frostbite, it is more likely to be treated first as it can be fatal. Treatment then addresses secondary infection and damage. This includes administration of antibiotics, and/or pain medication. When an area is gangrenous or showing signs of tissue death, it is removed through surgery or amputation depending on severity and location.

Frostbite is not life threatening, although it often occurs concurrently with hypothermia which can be fatal. Mild cases of frostbite resolve quickly, between a few days and a couple of weeks, and leave very little lasting damage. In severe cases, amputation or surgery is necessary, resulting in lifelong changes and healing can take months.

Prevention

There are a few measures that can be taken to prevent frostbite. The most beneficial is to limit exposure to freezing temperatures by housing dogs inside during extreme weather, and taking shorter walks. Avoiding outdoor activity at times or in areas that are windy is also helpful, as wind diminishes the body’s ability to preserve warmth. 

Moisture increases vulnerability to lower temperatures, and should be avoided during cold weather when possible. Management strategies include ensuring that all outdoor apparel is dry when it is put on and removed promptly when returning home. Providing outdoor working dogs with an outdoor shelter helps prevent exposure to extreme weather.

Is Frostbite Common in Dogs?

Frostbite is rare in dogs as they have physiological adaptations that increase their tolerance to colder temperatures.

Typical Treatment

• Gentle rewarming

• Pain medication

• Antibiotics

• Surgery

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