How to Prevent Frostbite in Dogs

Wind chill can cause frostbite. Couple with dog in the snow by Shutterstock

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Just how far do dog owners need to go to protect their pets from frostbite? Fortunately, for those like me who live in a winter wonderland, frostbite is relatively rare in dogs. I practice in extreme Northern Idaho and live halfway up a mile-high mountain where we can experience weeks of below-freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, we rarely see frostbitten dogs in our practice.

That’s partly because most of our patients live primarily indoors and because those who are working dogs or who spend a lot of time outdoors have access to shelter and, when needed, a heat source.

Check your dog's paws for signs of frostbite. Man and Basenji in the snow by Shutterstock
Check your dog’s paws for signs of frostbite. Man and Basenji in the snow by Shutterstock.

But every year, we see a few dogs at North Idaho Animal Hospital with frostbite of the ears, tip of the tail, and, occasionally, foot pads. Signs of frostbite include discoloration of the skin with it turning pale, gray, or blue (eventually black). Frostbitten tissue typically looks swollen, feels cold, brittle, or hard and can be painful. You can also see blisters or skin ulcer.

I live not only where it’s cold but also one mile as the crow flies from Dr. Stuart Nelson, the chief veterinarian for the Iditarod, who practices at a veterinary hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho. If anybody is an expert on frostbite in dogs, it’s Dr. Nelson. I asked him why we see so little frostbite in dogs and if his experience differed from mine.

“Frostbite is not common in dogs,” he told me, adding that it’s not enough for the mercury to move below freezing to put pets at high risk. “A combination of wind and temperatures below zero is necessary.”

Wind chill can cause frostbite. Couple with dog in the snow by Shutterstock
Wind chill can cause frostbite. Couple with dog in the snow by Shutterstock.

Tips for preventing frostbite:

  • Help dogs who work or spend a lot of time outdoors maintain a good caloric intake to fuel their “furnaces.”
  • Keep dogs well hydrated, and check that their water source isn’t allowed to freeze.
  • Protect the dogs from wind and moisture.
  • Provide insulation from both the air and the ground.
  • Provide outdoor housing with insulated bedding and adequate ventilation to prevent frost buildup.
  • Dogs with a short or thin coat, dogs with generalized illness, and seniors or those with any condition that might compromise metabolism or circulation should wear a jacket.
Some breeds are hardier in winter. Man with Huskies by Shutterstock
Some breeds are hardier in winter. Man with Huskies by Shutterstock.

If you suspect your dog has frostbite, be aware that the cycle of freezing and thawing is very destructive to the tissues in dogs, just as in humans. For that reason, keep them frozen until you can get the dog to a controlled environment where he can be thawed without risk of refreezing.

“Obviously, supporting and protecting the animal as much as possible needs to be done until this can be accomplished,” Dr. Nelson said. “If there is substantial swelling, a veterinary exam is indicated. More severe cases will require systemic antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.” In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

Even though frostbite in dogs isn’t all that common, when it happens, it can be deadly — and could almost always have been prevented. Don’t let Jack Frost nip at your dog. Do a winter checkup before temperatures plummet, and avoid the outdoors in the most extreme weather.

Read more by Dr. Marty Becker:

About the author: Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. The author of 24 books, Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on Good Morning America for 17 years. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the American Humane Association, as well as its chief veterinary correspondent; a founding member of Core Team Oz for The Dr. Oz Show; and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Board. When his schedule allows, he practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital. Connect with him on Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest,Twitter, and Google Plus.

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