- 1 What is frostbite? Why and where does it occur?
- 2 Is frostbite dangerous or life-threatening for my dog?
- 3 How do I know if my dog has frostbite?
- 4 What are the methods for diagnosing canine frostbite?
- 5 Cost of treating frostbite:
- 6 Home Treatment versus Professional Treatment:
- 7 Immediate vs continuing care for frostbite:
- 8 How to prevent frostbite in dogs?
What is frostbite? Why and where does it occur?
Commonly called “congelation,” frostbite is a condition that occurs in dogs that are exposed to the cold for a long period of time (anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit increases the risk for frostbite). Unlike humans, dogs have thick coats of fur that are designed to keep them warm in colder climates, but unfortunately this does not always prevent frostbite if a dog becomes too cold. Sustained exposure to very cold temperatures can cause a dog’s blood vessels to constrict (in an effort to stabilize body temperature). Clinically, this manifests as reduced blood flow to “non-vital” extremities. When there is limited blood flow to the extremities for a prolonged period, the tissues in these areas may start to die—and the damage can be irreparable. The areas typically impacted most by frostbite are the nose, tail, ears, scrotum, and nipples.
The discussion below explains the condition in more detail, including why steps should be taken immediately to repair any suspected damage caused by frostbite. There are a few conditions that raise the risk of your dog developing frostbite, including: heart disease or diabetes, fur that is wet, dogs with shorter hair, smaller dogs, older dogs, or any dogs suffering from illness that limits their mobility or blood flow.
Is frostbite dangerous or life-threatening for my dog?
While frostbite is usually not fatal, it often leads to another condition caused by cold temperatures called hypothermia (which can be life-threatening). Even if your dog has a thick coat of fur, prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures puts your dog at risk for both conditions. Dogs outside in extremely cold temperatures (anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit) should be closely monitored. If hypothermia is suspected, you should call a veterinarian immediately to fully assess the dog and confirm further steps.
How do I know if my dog has frostbite?
There are a number of clinical signs to watch out for if you suspect your dog might have frostbite. These symptoms can take up to a few days to appear, so be sure to keep a close eye on the dog over a prolonged period following suspected frostbite:
-An area of skin that is cold to the touch
-Apparent pain when the area is touched
-An area of skin that has swelling or redness
-An area of skin that is blistering or cracking
-Any skin that is blackened, purple, or appears dead
-Tissues that become increasingly red or apparently painful (inflamed) as they thaw
As noted, these symptoms may be delayed for up for several days as blood flow returns to the extremities following frostbite (this usually occurs in areas that are smaller, such as the tail tip or the ears). Frostbite that is more severe may be irreparable and require amputation. This may become evident in the color and behavior of the area of the skin that was affected; as tissue loses function, it usually turns purple or black, then (over the following weeks) it may fall off. Intermittent pus may develop, or the tissue may start to release a foul odor (usually due to a bacterial infection). These symptoms are rare but can be easily missed if they occur under the dog’s fur. You should do a thorough examination on the dog for a week following suspected frostbite.
To recap, in the days following exposure to extreme cold, you should inspect your dog for any signs of the following (even if there are no initial signs):
-Sections of skin that fall off in the following days or weeks, after turning black
-The formation of any pus or discharge
-Any odor that accompanies black discoloration
-Any apparent signs of a bacterial infection
If you identify sections of tissue in your dog that may have frostbite following prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, you should also ensure that the dog is not at risk for developing hypothermia (a sustained lower body temperature, which can be life-threatening). As noted above, if this condition is suspected, you should immediately consult a veterinarian.
The symptoms for this related condition can include the following:
-Clear trouble breathing or shallow panting
-A body temperature under 100º Fahrenheit
-Slow, jerky, or shaky movements
-Lack of energy or general lethargy
What are the methods for diagnosing canine frostbite?
If you suspect that your dog may have developed frostbite anywhere on the body from prolonged exposure to colder temperatures, you should thoroughly check the affected areas right away. If it is not clear whether immediate action is needed, keep a close eye on the areas for the next few days to make sure you don’t miss any of the delayed symptoms. If there is any concern, you should take your dog to the veterinarian for a more thorough exam. The veterinarian may need to perform a urinalysis or blood test to determine whether any more severe internal damage has taken place. Below, we discuss personal versus professional diagnoses in more detail.
A personal diagnosis will require you to check the dog for any of the signs of symptoms listed above. The most obvious signs for frostbite are any discoloration of the skin or pain when the area is touched. Make sure not to touch or massage the affected areas while you are performing an initial evaluation of the dog, as doing so may exacerbate the condition. Hypothermia is usually evident due to uncontrollable shaking. Any of these personal diagnoses should be confirmed by a veterinarian.
A professional diagnosis consists of a formal, thorough exam on the dog in a veterinarian clinic to check the tissues that were exposed to the cold. Veterinarians will have seen cases of the condition in other dogs, so they should be familiar with the signs and symptoms. As they check the dog for any suspicious symptoms, they will ask in-depth questions about the amount of time the dog was exposed to conditions that may have caused frostbite (exposure to ice or snow outdoors, long walks without appropriate clothing or shoes, etc.). As mentioned above, if there is any cause for concern following the exam and interview, the clinician may perform blood tests or a urinalysis. Even if you feel confident in a personal diagnosis, it is always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian if you are concerned about the development of frostbite, since the repercussions can be severe.
Cost of treating frostbite:
The average cost of treating frostbite at a veterinarian’s office is $1,000. The total cost will depend on a number of factors, including the rates of your veterinarian and the severity of the condition/number of required treatments. This average cost was determined based on 598 quotes that ranged in price from $500 to $3,000.
Home Treatment versus Professional Treatment:
If you have identified any of the symptoms listed above, you should immediately move the dog into a warm and dry area. This is especially urgent if the dog is shivering or appears to have trouble breathing, which could indicate hypothermia. Treating hypothermia is the number one priority, since it can be fatal. First, gently wrap the dog in warm towels or blankets (make sure they are not wet, which can aggravate the problem). If you have any hot water bottles, place them around the towels or blankets (but not directly on the dog’s skin, which can lead to pain), and make sure they are sealed appropriately. If they leak, the scalding water could burn the dog!
Next, fill a bucket or water basin with tepid water (you should be able to put your hand in the water without feeling burned) and place a small towel in the water, then apply gently to the affected area. Do not soak the dog in the water completely! You’ll want to keep the dry towels around the dog while you are doing this to make sure the water does not lead to more shivering; keep the dog as dry as possible throughout the process by dabbing the area with a warm, dry cloth intermittently. As an alternative to using any wet twoels, you can warm a towel using a warming towel rack or with a hand-held hair dryer before applying it to the dog’s skin. Do not apply these heating sources directly! When it is clear that the affected area is warmer (warm to the touch), you should dry off the dog completely by patting the dog with the warm, dry towels. Be sure to stop the dog from attempting to lick or scratch any of the affected areas, which may be the natural impulse. Keep the dog in the towels or blankets throughout the transport to the veterinarian’s clinic.
Be sure to avoid some common pitfalls or mistakes when performing these processes, including:
-Using extremely hot water (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and submerging the affected areas in it, as this may worsen the condition
-Applying any direct heat to the affected areas, such as a hair dryer or heating pad
-Massaging or rubbing any of the areas that appear to be affected by frostbite
-Attempting to warm up these areas when you are in an environment where they will likely not stay warm, including any outdoor spaces. Any tissues that freeze again after warming may suffer more damage
-Giving the dog any pain meds that are not prescribed by your veterinarian. Pain relievers that are designed for humans can be lethal to dogs.
At Your Veterinarian’s Office:
Once the veterinarian has conducted a thorough exam and assessed the damage, he or she will discuss the next steps for treatment. Most cases of canine frostbite are mild, and often heal completely. Moderate to severe cases can cause disfigurement of the area, bacterial infections that require antibiotics, or (in very severe cases) surgical amputation. Depending on the severity of the frostbite, the veterinarian could prescribe short-term pain medication for dogs.
Immediate vs continuing care for frostbite:
In general, it’s always a good idea to contact the veterinarian if you notice any of the symptoms listed above. They will give you help you take any further steps needed to make sure your dog’s condition is handled appropriately.
Unfortunately, if the problem persists and a large area has blackened or died due to a prolonged lack of circulation, amputation may be a last-resort option. This is rare; usually, if the treatment protocol listed above is followed, there is moderate lasting cosmetic damage.
How to prevent frostbite in dogs?
Ideally, you’ll be able to prevent any of these symptoms from occurring in the first place! Prevent frostbite in your dog by rigorously limiting his/her exposure to the outdoors in colder weather, especially in the snow. A good rule of thumb is to limit the dog’s time outside when the outdoor temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are a few extra steps you can take to ensure your dog has the best chance of avoiding frostbite:
- Buy winter clothing and accessories: When your dog does spend time outdoors in colder weather, make sure he/she is wearing a suitable wardrobe. There are boots made in every size that are designed to keep paws warm and safe. Also consider purchasing a jacket or wrap-around coat for the dog, which will keep the core snug (which increases the overall body temperature). These items are especially useful if you are going on hikes or lengthy walks on cold ground. If you go on a walk with the dog in the snow and don’t use booties, be sure to clean any snow from the dog’s paws when you return home. These considerations are especially important for dogs with thin fur, smaller dogs, older dogs, and any dogs with illnesses that inhibit blood flow. You can find various dog apparel at a local pet store or online. In addition to booties and jackets, there are also a variety of other warm clothing options, including neck warmers, socks, hats, and wraps. If you live in a climate with extreme temperatures for many months on end, it may be worth investing in a number of these items to have on hand!
- Keep health conditions in mind: As mentioned, there are a number of conditions that may increase a dog’s risk for developing frostbite after exposure to cold weather, including diabetes and heart disease. Some medications that are prescribed for these conditions (beta-blockers, for example) impair blood flow and may put your dog at a higher risk for developing frostbite. If your dog has been diagnosed with either of these conditions, or takes routine medication prescribed by a veterinarian, you should make an appointment with him/her to ensure that your dog will be safe throughout the winter months.
- Keep your dog well-fed and hydrated: One easy way to decrease the change that your dog will be susceptible to developing frostbite in the cold is by ensure that they eat enough food! When dogs are satiated, their circulatory systems function as they should. You should also make sure that your dog is staying hydrated by replenishing their water source often (and be sure that it is not frozen)! If your dog remains outdoors throughout the winter, be sure to provide them with well-insulated housing that is weather-proof to combat wind, rain, cold, and snow (but be sure that it is well-ventilated). You also may want to consider purchasing add-on cushions or blankets for the dog that they can use for added warmth after playing outside.