Frostbite on Dogs: Myth or Menace?

There is an ongoing debate in animal health, about whether pets are in danger of frostbite during the cold months.  We have heard dog owners and veterinarians alike swear that dogs simply can’t get frostbite — but they have exposed skin and sensitive parts like us, so why not?  As it turns out, it takes much lower temperatures and much longer exposure for dogs to experience the kind of frostbite that can debilitate and even permanently injure a human within minutes.  It is still something of a phenomenon how dogs manage to keep their noses, feet, and ears warm even in bitter cold.  However, despite dogs’ superior resistance to cold, frostbite is not completely impossible.  Also, in temperatures where frostbite is a concern, hypothermia could be an even more frightening possibility for an exposed animal.

Dogs may never show you the first signs of frostbite, what we experience as numbness, followed by itching or mild discomfort when the exposed area is warmed up again.  How can a dog tell you his foot is going numb?  He won’t cry in pain if it doesn’t hurt.  And just like our own mild frostbite, you can’t see the damage right away.  If your dog spends significant amount of time outdoors in the winter, always check his paws when he comes back inside.  You take the time to wipe the snow from his paws and fur, so you can take the time to have a look at his feet too.  If you live in a northern state, you will want to keep his excursions short, and check his skin every time.  What to look for:

  • White or pale patches on skin or paw pads
  • Skin that is cold to the touch even after coming inside for a bit
  • Skin that turns red and swollen within a day or so of exposure

If your dog exhibits signs of frostbite, you should warm the area very slowly.  Mild frostbite may disappear completely after warming.  More severe frostbite will take time to heal, and may become painful as it heals.  If redness and swelling appears, see a vet immediately.

Despite denials of the possibility of frostbite in dogs, it is a real threat in some climates, and especially for some breeds, and dogs with health conditions.

Sure — if you live in South Carolina and have a Mastiff you might never be able to imagine your dog getting frostbite.  But think about the Chihuahua who lives in Buffalo, or even the Mastiff who lives in Anchorage!  Frostbite is a real concern for many dogs, and should not be written off as something “impossible.”  Dogs have circulation systems that shut down blood-flow to extremities in extreme cold — just like us.  Dogs have been domesticated to spend most of their time indoors — hey, just like us!  Just because you see badgers and bunnies braving the snow all winter, doesn’t mean your dog should stay outside all night or take long snowy hikes without protection.  You want him to lead a much more comfortable life than those badgers have to endure!

Some things you can do to prevent frostbite and keep your dog safe this winter:

  • Limit his outdoor time when temps fall below freezing.  If he needs his exercise, take walks rather than letting him have his run of the yard.  If you are with him in the cold, you will feel it too, and get inside before the two of you get too chilly.
  • Put baby oil on your dog’s paws before a long excursion.  The oil will keep snow and slush from sticking between his toes and forming little ice packs that could damage tissue.
  • Don’t expose a dog to lower temperatures than he is accustomed to.  If you took Florida Fido on a ski trip to Wisconsin, you’ll need to supervise his snow play.  He doesn’t have his own tactics for staying warm.
  • Wipe and inspect your dog’s paws and fur to look for frostbite, remove packed on snow, and clean off any icemelt chemicals.
  • If your pup just loves the outdoors and can’t be contained no matter the temperature, consider investing in dog booties.  Booties from good outdoor gear companies will fit well, keep paws warm, and make walking comfortable in all kinds of weather.

For more on winter safety for your dog, visit these links:

http://www.canismajor.com/dog/winter2.html

http://www.dogguide.net/winter-safety-2.php

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