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Frostbite in Dogs and Cats: How to Handle it, How to Prevent It

Keeping Your Pets Safe in Cold Weather

By December 30, 2013 | See Comments

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    PetCareRx Staff Veterinarian

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A Dog And Cat Sittting Outside In The Snow

Winter can be a brutal time of year for pets who enjoy spending time outdoors. Frostbite is not only painful, but potentially fatal as well. Here are some helpful tips on how to keep your pet safe during those cold months.

As it gets colder, it's important to think about how frostbite can affect your pet. Despite their fur coats, when a cat or dog is exposed to extreme cold for a long period of time, the risk of frostbite or hypothermia is high. Smaller dogs and cats are at even greater risk.

Causes of Frostbite

Frostbite in dogs and cats is caused by the constricting of blood vessels and formation of ice crystals in the skin. Under very cold conditions, the body will reduce blood flow to extremities (in a pet’s case, especially ears, nose and tail) to keep the rest of the body and organs warm. Over time, this can damage or kill skin cells.

Frostbite usually occurs when dogs or cats are left out in extreme cold for long periods of time, but wet skin and wind can compound these problems. Getting wet or being exposed to wind can cause frostbite even in moderately cold conditions.

Symptoms of Frostbite

If your dog or cat has been out in the cold for more than a few minutes, you should check for symptoms of frostbite, especially on the ears, nose, toes, scrotum, and tail, or any injured areas.

  • Frostbitten skin will be hard, cold, and appear pale or grey-blueish white. The skin may have attached ice.
  • Once the skin starts to thaw, it will become painful for your pet. The skin will often turn red, swell, and may also blister or peel.
  • If the skin turns dark or black, instead of red, seek emergency attention, as this is the sign of dead tissue, which will need to be removed.

Treatment Steps

If you suspect your dog or cat has frostbite, you should take steps to warm the skin, but only if you know you can keep it warm—re-freezing can cause more damage.

  1. Bring your pet into a warm, dry place.
  2. Warm a towel in the dryer and wrap it around your pet.
  3. Warm up the frostbitten area with warm (not hot) water and warm compresses. Don't use any direct heat, such as a hairdryer or heating pad.
  4. Dry them off gently with blotting. Avoid any rubbing or massaging which can irritate or damage the skin.
  5. Contact your veterinarian for immediate examination.

Your vet will examine the damaged tissues and likely prescribe pain relief medication and antibiotics to treat any possible secondary infection. In days after the frostbite, the affected skin will be painful and itchy but it's important to keep your dog or cat from licking or scratching, which could further damage the skin. An e-collar may be necessary to protect the area. In extreme cases, the area may turn dark and require emergency surgical removal to avoid infection of surrounding tissue.

Preventing Frostbite

You can prevent frostbite by limiting time spent outside in the winter or cold and wet days of spring and fall. Even “outside dogs” should have access to a warm and dry shelter, out of the wind. You can also help keep your dog warm with sweaters, or protect their toes with boots if you know they will be out for a long walk in the cold.

More on Pets And Cold Weather

Hypothermia in Dogs and Cats
Can Dogs Get Colds? And Other Winter Questions Answered
7 Ways to Exercise Your Dog in Cold Weather

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

2016-12-09T22:26:55

I hear lots of talk about what causes frost bite in pets how to prevent it but what about once your dog has had frost bite?
In my life time I have had 8 dogs and never have any of them gotten frost bite, not even my dad's hunting dog that lived outside. There can be a first time for anyone.
We have indoor dogs that spend a lot of time outside all year round. About four winters ago we had extremely cold weather. My two year old Aussie and I snow shoe, hike and she follows along while I sky. The winter was extremely cold it hurt your lungs to go out so we were out very little. We finally had a decent enough day so our kids could play out in the snow with our 3 dogs. The kind of warm weather perfect for building snowmen. When they came in the dogs stayed out about another hour playing. Out of the three dogs, mine got frost bite. It was January 1st, Happy New Year to my poor dog. When I noticed her gnawing at her back feet I looked and the front two pads on both back feet were partially chewed away by her. I am assuming she hid the frost bite from me for sometime because this is a later stage result of frost bite, the removal of dead flesh. To prevent infection I soaked her feet in Epsom salt and put pain relieving ointment on her feet, covering them with a pair of my husbands socks, wrapping them snug above the knee with the stretchy stuff they use when you have blood drawn (it sticks to itself not you). Just when her feet would look healed she would gnaw them again till raw. Finally in April, four months later, with advice from my Vet, I got a cone so she couldn't chew her feet. (The vet had seen many cases of frost bite that winter so it is not a freak thing, she said it happens on warm sticky days when the snow sticks to their feet easily. Use "musher's secret" to protect your pets paws and cut the hair from the bottom of the feet and in between the pads) The end of May her paws were finally healed to the point where she left them alone. The next winter was the same and not knowing any better I had her out with me as soon as the snow fell. Big mistake because once a dog has frost bite it is inevitably going to reoccur. Sure enough she had it from one time of being outside for an hour playing with me.. Back to the soaking, ointment, covering and instantly the cone, you can't heal them with out it because they interfere, Humans treat illness better than animals so as long as you are caring for them they need to be prevented from interfering for a speedy healing.
Now I have many pairs of booties. None of them wanted to stay on. I bought a pair of booties that went high up the leg with soles. I attached two reflective velcro pieces above the knees of both booties so I could wrap them tight at that narrow area preventing them from sliding off. It works awesome! I place plastic fold top sandwich bags over her feet before I slip them in the booties to keep her feet dry. I still pay attention in case they fall off. They rarely do but the reflective velcro makes them very easy to find in the snow if you look after dark. So far the last two years the boots have protected her feet so she didn't get frost bite.
Now this year is super nice and I want to hit all the trails. I will still put her boots on but I bought "mushers secret" and want to try letting her out to the potty or for 15 to 30 minute periods without the boots when playing with my kids. If she does not get frost bite when out for small periods of time maybe it would be safe to say that frost bite would not reoccur without boots if the dog is not exposed to snow and ice for too long. I don't want to take the chance of her getting frost bite. That is why I would love some input from people that have dealt with frost bit feet on dogs. I am sure there are lots of people out there with this question. What happens the next winter after a dog has had frost bite and what measures should be taken to care for you dog/pet once they have had frost bite? Your dog can never be treated the same again.

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Frostbite at a glance

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  • 1All dogs are vulnerable to the cold, but smaller pets are at higher risk.
  • 2Damaged skin will appear pale and white. Avoid rubbing, irritating, or re-exposing it.
  • 3Dry your pet and slowly warm them. Re-warming of frozen skin can be painful.
  • 4Seek veterinary attention after an instance of frostbite, especially if you see dark patches of skin.
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