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Can Dogs Get Frostbite On Their Paws?

Posted by Kaila Scott on

Winter may invite some conflicting feelings. It can be such a beautiful season—but also miserable and dangerous. Having a fun and safe winter requires some preparation.

Dog owners need to consider how the winter affects the hairier members of their families. Watching your dog play in the snow is so much fun, but with that comes the need to take precautions.

In this article, we answer the question, can dogs get frostbite on their paws? But don’t worry—by the end, you’ll also learn how to prevent frostbite on a dog’s paws. You’ll know what signs to look for in case this happens to your dog and you’ll know how to treat frostbite on a dog’s paws.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is tissue damage caused by freezing cold temperatures. Exposed skin in cold, windy weather is most susceptible to frostbite, however, covered skin can get frostbite too. There are multiple stages of frostbite, each requiring a different level of treatment.

It’s important that dog owners know what to watch for so they know how to treat frostbite on a dog’s paws, and how to prevent frostbite on a dog’s paws.

Can dogs get frostbite?

Yes, just like humans, dogs can get frostbite.

When temperatures drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees celsius), dogs become vulnerable to frostbite. When a dog is cold, the blood vessels closest to the skin constrict to keep the blood (and oxygen) closer to the core muscles and organs. This is a survival mechanism to protect vital organs from the effects of the cold.

It’s an effective bodily process, but it leaves the extremities without proper blood flow. After some time, the lack of blood and oxygen damage the cells. In cold temperatures, blood clots can form, which restricts blood flow to these areas even more. Ice crystals may form, increasing damage to cells and blood vessels. Frostbite is not life-threatening to dogs, but hypothermia usually follows, which can be fatal.

Breeds that come from places with cold weather, such as the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute, developed features that keep them warm, like a thick double coat. However, they are still vulnerable to getting frostbite on their paws or other extremities.

Dogs most susceptible to frostbite include puppies, seniors, short-haired dogs, dogs who have problems with regulating their body temperature, and dogs with heart or metabolic conditions.

Can dogs get frostbite on their paws?

Since blood is redirected away from the extremities, dogs’ paws are one area of their body that are most vulnerable to frostbite. The other areas that get frostbite are their tail, ears, and nose.

How fast can dogs get frostbite on their paws?

How fast frostbite sets in depends on a few factors: temperature, wind, and exposure. The colder and windier the weather is, the faster a dog can get frostbite. Dogs that have more exposed paws with less fur on them may be more vulnerable to getting frostbite.

Stages of frostbite

As the tissue damage gets worse, it enters more severe forms of frostbite. There are three stages of frostbite: frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite. Each stage requires a different level of care. Learn how to identify the stage so you can find out how to treat frostbite on a dog’s paws.

Frostnip

Frostnip is the first, and mildest, stage of frostbite. It’s also the most common. Dogs can get frostbite on their paws from being out in the snow for even a short period of time. Frostnip usually causes some redness and mild discomfort.

Superficial frostbite

The second stage of frostbite is called superficial frostbite. It can appear pale, swollen, and possibly blistered. Contrary to what you might expect, superficial frostbite may feel warm, which is actually a sign of inflammation because the tissue is trying to heal itself.

Deep frostbite

The more severe stage of frostbite is deep frostbite. It’s uncommon but if your dog gets it, it’s very serious. A dog could get this type of frostbite after a prolonged period in freezing wind or with wet skin. The skin turns gray or blue and blisters over the course of a few days. 

This is dangerous because bacteria can get into the body through blisters. Then the skin often turns black, which is caused by dead tissue (necrosis).

Signs of frostbite

Frostbite on a dog’s paws may look different depending on how severe it is, but there are common signs to watch out for:

  • Red or pale skin
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Tenderness on contact
  • Black skin (necrosis)
  • Limping
  • Barking or whining

How to treat frostbite on a dog’s paws

If your dog has frostbite, act fast. Call the vet as soon as your dog is safe and follow these steps for immediate first aid:

Step One: Take your dog inside

Remove your dog from the cold environment as soon as possible. The longer he’s left in the cold, the worse the frostbite will be. Bring him inside where it’s warm. If you’re somewhere outdoors and don’t have a place indoors, bring your dog to the dryest, warmest place you can find.

Step two: Warm your dog up

If your dog also has hypothermia, treat that first. Wrap him in a blanket or a dry towel and slowly warm up his core. Avoid rubbing any areas with frostbite as this could do more damage. As your dog gets warmer, his body won’t need to try so hard to protect his core. His constricted blood vessels will dilate again, and allow blood to flow back into his extremities.

If you’re outside, don’t try to warm up any frostbitten areas unless you can keep them warm. If they get cold again, it can do more severe damage. Try to keep the area around your dog warm, but don’t apply hot water bottles, heating pads, or hair dryers directly to your dog’s injuries. Frostbitten skin is sensitive and could burn more easily.

Step three: Pat dry

Once your dog is warm, make sure he’s dry, but be very careful not to rub. Pat him dry slowly and gently. Don’t give your dog any medication, for pain or otherwise, unless your vet specifically tells you to. Most of the medications humans commonly take are toxic to dogs and would do much more harm.

While you’re taking your dog to the vet, keep him wrapped in blankets or towels that are warm (not hot) from the dryer.

Step four: Thaw the frostbitten areas

Use lukewarm water to thaw your dog’s frostbite (approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit). It shouldn’t be any hotter than 108 degrees Fahrenheit because that can cause more damage to the tissue. As it warms up, if the skin turns red, that may show the tissue isn’t damaged too severely. Dark or black tissue might indicate tissue death. While you can thaw frostbite on your own, it’s best to seek medical advice from a vet.

How will the vet treat frostbite a dog’s paws?

Your vet may give your dog an examination and evaluate how bad the tissue damage is. If there are any other conditions that need treatment, such as hypothermia, your vet will treat them. When it’s time to thaw the frostbite, she may give your dog pain medication that’s made for dogs, since the process can be painful.

Your dog may be given antibiotics, just in case of a potential infection. In severe cases, where there’s dead tissue your vet can’t save, the tissue may need to be removed and might require amputation.

Prognosis for frostbite on a dog’s paws

The prognosis depends on how severe the frostbite is, if it’s treated properly, and whether there’s tissue death. Mild cases of frostbite usually resolve with little-to-no permanent damage. 

How to prevent frostbite on a dog’s paws

The damage that dogs can get from frostbite on their paws might be irreversible if you’re not careful. Practicing prevention strategies is always the best course of action. Here are seven tips for how to prevent frostbite on your dog’s paws:

  • Watch the time
  • If you limit the time your dog plays in the snow, you can reduce the chances of him getting frostbite. Set a timer and when the time is up, bring your dog inside and give his feet a wipe. He can always go back out for another session later on.

  • Cover your dog’s feet
  • If your dog needs long walks or spends a lot of time outside in the winter, cover his feet to protect them from the cold and wind. Put some rubber booties on him while he’s walking or playing in the snow. You could even add a layer of dog socks underneath the booties for some added warmth.

    If your dog is one of many who don’t like having anything on their feet, you can get suspenders made for dogs. Or you can adjust suspenders made for humans to fit your dog. The strap wraps around your dog’s back and holds the booties on his feet. Once he gets outside, he’ll be so happy to play in the snow, he may forget all about the discomfort of his booties.

  • Get a jacket for your dog
  • While it might seem like a jacket wouldn’t do much for your dog’s feet, it can actually make a world of difference. We’ve already established that when your dog gets cold, his body restricts blood from accessing his extremities so it can protect his core. If your dog’s jacket is keeping his core warm, the blood vessels near his paws won’t constrict and his blood can freely circulate around his whole body, reducing his chances of getting frostbite.

  • Trim your dog’s hair
  • Sometimes the thing that’s meant to keep your dog warm actually contributes to making him cold. Long hair on your dog’s paws can get wet and then freeze and increase the likelihood of your dog getting frostbite. Keeping the hair trimmed can help by keeping your dog’s paws dryer in the winter.

  • Dry your dog completely
  • Before your dog goes outside, make sure he is completely dry. Any residual moisture from bath time or the last time he played outside, can freeze and significantly increase his chances of getting frostbite.

  • Check your dog’s paws often
  • Check your dog’s feet frequently when he’s playing outside. If he’s wearing a coat and booties, you might think he’s safe to play outside for as long as he wants. Without checking his feet, you never know for sure.

    Booties can fall off or get snow in them, leaving your dog’s paws vulnerable to frostbite. If he’s going to play outside, always check his feet at regular intervals and make sure they’re not freezing.

  • Protect paws with paw balm
  • Paw balm acts as a barrier to protect your dog’s paws. Instead of clumping in between your dog’s toes, snow and ice have nothing to stick to, minimizing the risk of frostbite. It also helps to prevent chemical burns on your dog’s feet and in his mouth, caused by winter salt.

    There are different brands of paw balm you can buy or you can make your own. Make sure the ingredients aren’t toxic to dogs in case he decides to clean his feet.

    Spread the word

    Winter can be a really fun time for your dog but it can also be dangerous. Frostbite isn’t something you can afford to overlook. Pay attention to the signs so that you can determine how to treat frostbite on your dog’s paws.

    Keep your pup safe by keeping his feet dry and warm. Spread the word. Tell your dog-loving friends how to prevent frostbite on dogs’ paws to help everyone keep their dog safe in the winter.


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