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Do Dogs Get Frostbite?

During the winter, you dog faces special challenges that may not be obvious to us as humans. If you'd like to learn about these challenges so you can be better informed, and hopefully, better prepared -- then please read on!

First the obvious...Winter is Cold -- that's not rocket science. However, as humans, we wear thermal socks, waterproof boots & gloves and sometimes even use chemical warming packs to keep our hands and feet warm and dry. What about your dog? 


Many people think that dogs can't suffer from frostbite - that they have a biological resistance to the cold. While some select breeds (such as the Alaskan Malamute) are less prone to frostbite, all dogs are susceptible. Dr. Jerry Klein, CVO of the American Kennel Club (AKC) states the following, "like humans, dogs can get frostbite as well". 


Where Is Your Dog Vulnerable to Frostbite?

When and where can a dog get frostbite? Just like humans, dogs are prone to frostbite in their extremities. The ears, tail, nose and paws/paw pads are especially vulnerable. When you add the fact that dogs have a few sweat glands on their paws which can generate sweat that freezes in very cold conditions - the paws can be especially vulnerable.


A good example is this picture. The sweat from the paws freezes and attracts additional ice crystals - leading to a dangerous condition that could lead to frostbite. (It is important to note that the sweat glands in the paws are not critical to your dog cooling off. Unlike humans, dogs don't cool themselves by sweating. They are biologically different - they pant to cool themselves.)



Signs of Frostbite in Your Dog

How do you tell if your dog has frostbite? Dr. Tammy Hunter, DVM and Dr. Earnest Ward, DVM of the VCA Animal Hospital state the following:

What are the clinical signs of frostbite?

The clinical signs associated with frostbite include:

  • discoloration of the affected area of skin - this discoloration is often pale, gray or bluish.
  • coldness and/or brittleness of the area when touched.
  • pain when you touch the body part(s).
  • swelling of the affected area(s).
  • blisters or skin ulcers.
  • areas of blackened or dead skin.


As frostbitten tissues thaw, they may become red and very painful due to inflammation.

"The clinical signs of frostbite may take several days to appear, especially if the affected area is small or on non-weight bearing areas."

The clinical signs of frostbite may take several days to appear, especially if the affected area is small or on non-weight bearing areas, such as the tip of the tail or ears. Severely frostbitten areas will become necrotic or die. As the tissue starts to die, it changes to a dark blue to black color; then, over a period of several days to weeks, it sloughs or falls off. During this time, pus may form or the tissue may develop a foul smell, due to secondary bacterial infection.


Treating Frostbite in Your Dog

The VCA Animal Hospital website provides an excellent guide for treating frostbite in your dog. We have summarized this article in the section below.

If you suspect your dog has frostbite, you should get to your nearest emergency veterinary clinic immediately. This guide is only a reference until you are able to obtain professional veterinary treatment.

 First Aid for Frostbite in Your Dog

  1. Get Your Dog Warm and Dry

The first danger is hypothermia. If your dog’s core body temperature is too low, get him wrapped up in a warm blanket near a heat source. Use hot water bottles if they are available.

  1. Do Not Massage or Warm the Suspected Area

Unless you can keep the part warm (ie. you are no longer outdoors), do not warm any body part that is suspect for frostbite. Warming and re-freezing can cause serious harm.

If you are inside, follow this recommendation quoted from the VCA Hospital:
You may carefully warm the affected area with warm (NOT HOT) water. The recommended water temperature is 104 to 108°F (40 to 42°C). At this temperature, you should be able to comfortably place your hand in the warm water.
If the water is too hot, you may cause more damage than not using any water at all. You may apply warm water compresses or soak the affected area in a bowl of warm water. DO NOT use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer.
After you have warmed the area, pat him dry carefully and thoroughly. Do not rub your dog with the towels.
While traveling to your veterinarian for further medical treatment, keep your dog warm by wrapping him in dry towels or blankets that have been warmed in the clothes dryer.
DO NOT give any pain medication unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian. Many human pain relievers, including acetaminophen and aspirin can be toxic to dogs.”

Once you arrive at your veterinarian’s office, he or she will carefully assess the situation and determine the best course of treatment.

If caught early and treated immediately, the prognosis for recovery is excellent. However, in the case of prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures some tissues may die (the medical term is necrotic) and require surgical removal or even limb amputation.

The best course of action is to be diligent and work to prevent frostbite in your canine companions.

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