Many people believe that since their pets (especially dogs and cats) are covered in fur that they must be able to be out in the cold for extended periods of time. While it is true that certain breeds of dogs have the ability to be out in the cold longer than others due to thicker coats and adaptations that their breed has made to combat cold weather (Bernese Mountain Dogs, Huskies and Malamutes) the truth is that no dog can be out in the cold weather indefinitely, and most breeds are not able to be out any longer than a typical human being. Dogs with compromised health and issues such as old age and diabetes are even less able to be out in the cold. Frostbite is damage to the tissues that are exposed to cold weather, and begins at 32 degrees or lower. The amount of damage that occurs can very from mild and superficial to major depending on the length of exposure and the extremity of the cold.
As defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica frostbite is “cell damage, tissue dehydration, and oxygen depletion caused by freezing and thawing can lead to blood-cell disruption, clotting in capillaries, and gangrene.” Essentially, the animal is freezing from the extremities inward, resulting in extraordinary amounts of pain and tissue loss. Frostbite occurs in three identifiable stages, ranging from the least to most severe. Stage One frostbite is actually difficult to see, and usually is identified by a pale look to the skin on the extremities such as the ears, lips, tail, face, feet, and scrotum. The area may also be cold and hard to the touch. Examination should be conducted with extreme care, due to the fact that if the circulation is badly effected the tip of the extremity can rub off. As the dog is warming, the area will become red and swollen, before becoming scaly and painful.
Second degree frostbite will be illustrated by skin blisters forming on your dog. Once again, careful examination is necessary as extreme damage can result from touching the area or rubbing it.
Third degree frostbite is identified by the flesh on the dog’s extremities turning dark colored or completely black over a period of several days. There will be a clear and noticeable difference between the effected area and the un-effected area. Many times, third degree frostbite will result in gangrene and necessitate an amputation of the limb.
Treating frostbite should always be done by a veterinarian, so getting your dog to the animal hospital as soon as possible after you suspect frostbite is crucial. The main reason that people should not attempt to treat frostbite at home without first consulting a veterinarian is that more damage can be done if it is improperly treated. Warming your dog gradually with luke-warm water without rubbing the effected areas can calm the dog down until you can get them to the doctor. Never use hot water as this can cause sever pain, and never rub the area as this can release toxins into the dog’s bloodstream. It is important to stop the dog from scratching or licking the effected area, as they can damage skin and tissue that potentially could be saved. As you are traveling to the vet, do not turn the heat up in the car too far in an attempt to warm the dog as this can cause further distress, warm or slightly cool temperatures are best. Your dog will probably need pain killers and antibiotics to combat infections.
First and foremost, pet owners should attempt to avoid frostbite by keeping their dogs inside on cold days, as well as providing adequate and heated shelter outside. Food and water supplies should be kept fresh and unfrozen, and special attention should be paid to your dog in the form of examination if frostbite is suspected.