How to Treat and Prevent Frostbite on Your Dogs Paws

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10 Minute Read
Updated October 15, 2021

Extreme cold is not just unpleasant, it can be dangerous too. Dog frostbite is easily preventable with the right gear and safety practices. Learn how to protect your dog from frostbite on dog paws, ears, and other vulnerable extremities.

Canadian winters can be pretty harsh depending on which province you live in. This could mean you and your dog are dealing with some pretty frigid temperatures, not to mention the snow and ice that often comes with it. 

Some dogs hate the cold and snow, while others couldn’t care less, as long as they get to go out and play. But come rain, shine, or blizzard, your dog still, at least, needs to go outside to relieve himself several times per day. 

Before we get into the tips and gear for preventing frostbite, learn what frostbite is and why it’s so important that you take the proper precautions to prevent it. 

Can Dogs Get Frostbite?

When your dog is subjected to extreme cold, like January in the prairies, their body instinctually protects core muscles and systems to keep your dog safe. This is why dog coats and sweaters cover those vital areas, like the chest, neck, and shoulders. 

By doing this, their body starts to reduce blood flow to extremities, like paws, ears, and noses, by constricting the blood vessels nearest the surface of the skin. This allows your dog’s circulatory system to focus on the most important systems and prevent hypothermia.

Frostbite refers to the damage done to the tissue when those extremities go without blood flow for too long in freezing temperatures. If untreated, the damage could be permanent, so prevention and proper treatment are key.

Mild cases can easily be treated at home, but your vet is your best resource for determining the best treatment method if you aren’t sure how severe the frostbite is. 

How Long Does it Take a Dog to Get Frostbite?

Frostbite can occur at any temperature below freezing, but the colder it is, the faster frostbite can set in and the more severe the damage will be. Areas on your dog’s body that are exposed to the wind and cold, like ears, are going to be the first spots to succumb to frostbite. 

Every dog is different, and some dogs have more natural protection from cold than others, so the time and circumstances that cause frostbite can vary. For exposed skin, frostbite can set in as quickly as 30 minutes, and the colder and windier it is, the sooner frostbite can take effect. 

Dogs with a heavy or double coat, like shepherds or malamutes, can withstand colder temperatures for longer, but remember - they are not immune to the harmful effects of extreme weather. 

How to Prevent Dog Frostbite

Frostbite is always better to prevent than treat, so make sure you are taking the proper precautions every time you take your dog out into extreme weather. 

Gear is important, and if you’ve never bought a dog coat before, dog boots and a snood might seem very silly, but they can save you a lot of trouble and keep your pet safe. Keep that in mind when prepping for your next winter walk.

Here are a few things you should consider having on hand to help your pet stay safe this winter:

    • Check the weather to be prepared for cold, wind, and ice. Sometimes, walks can be rescheduled to accommodate storms. 
    • Make sure you have the right gear. Dog coats, boots, scarves, or hats might be necessary for extreme weather conditions.
    • Limit time outside. Keep your excursions to under 30 minutes. This might mean breaking up routines and exercise into multiple short bouts a day instead of one long one like your dog may be used to. 
    • Avoid water. In cold weather lakes and ponds freeze over, but the ice isn’t always solid. Being wet and cold increases your dog’s chances of frostbite or hypothermia. 
    • Don’t stray too far from the shelter. At first signs of frostbite, you need to be near enough to a warm dry place, like your house or your car. 

Dog Frostbite Signs

dog-lifting-cold-paw-in-the-snow

Whether or not your dog loves the cold, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of frostbite. No matter how routine or epic your dog’s winter adventures are, it’s up to you to make sure he’s not in danger of frostbite. 

Look for some of the common signs of frostbite, and check your dog routinely throughout your winter walks and activities for any common signs of frostbite. The sooner you recognize the problem, the easier it will be to fix it. 

    • Redness or extremely pale skin
    • Swelling or blistering
    • Pain or tenderness when touched
    • Lifting paws when walking
    • Seeking heat or shelter from the cold
    • Weakness or mobility problems
    • Black or dying tissue
    • Curled or cracker nose or ear tips
    • Focused fur loss
    • Whining or barking

Stages of Frostbite

There are three stages of frostbite: Frostnip, Superficial Frostbite, and Deep Frostbite. Recognizing the symptoms of each will not only help you know when to get your dog out of the cold but will dictate how you will treat the frostbite. 

Frostnip

Frostnip is the most common and typically doesn’t leave any lasting damage. It can happen even on short excursions when temperatures are extreme. Signs of frostnip are usually a mild redness of the skin and discomfort when it’s touched. 

Superficial Frostbite

Superficial frostbite is worse and can cause whitening or paleness to the skin. The skin will also feel warm, which is a sign that the tissue is damaged and is trying to heal itself. Mild swelling is common, and fluid-filled blistered can form within 12-36 hours of the damage. 

Deep Frostbite

Deep frostbite is rare but dangerous. This level of frostbite is usually only possible with long-term exposure to freezing wind, or if your dog is wet and cold for a long time. The skin will turn grey or even blueish, and large blisters will form over the next couple of days. Afterwards, the damaged tissue will likely turn black, which is a sign of necrosis, or tissue death. 

The risk of infection is very high whenever blisters are present, so if you suspect your dog has frostbite at any stage, it’s important to call your vet to ensure that you are treating the frostbite in the safest way possible. 

Frostbite on Dog Paws

Your dog’s paws are usually the extremity that is most likely to come into contact with snow, ice, and freezing water, so it’s no surprise that frostbite on dog paws is pretty common. Dogs that love to run and play in snow may be experiencing mild frostnip without you even knowing it. 

Have you ever had your dog come in from the snow and have their paws be fully caked on with ice and snowballs? While it may seem like more of a nuisance than a problem, your dog could be experiencing some mild frostbite. 

Boots are the best way to protect your dog’s paws from cold weather. Check out Does My Dog Need Boots for Snow to learn more benefits and help you find the right boots for your pooch. 

Shop Dog Boots and Socks

Frostbite on Dog Ears

Another very vulnerable spot on your dog is his ears. These appendages are thin and delicate and are one of the first places that blood flow will be restricted to preserve body heat. They are also thin enough to lose feeling quickly, so your dog might not even notice how cold his ears are. 

Because of how thin your dog’s ears are, more severe stages of frostbite can set in quicker even if damage doesn’t present itself until hours or days later. The very tips of the ears can curl and start to dry out, leaving them looking rough and jagged. 

For extreme weather conditions, consider getting your dog a snood to cover his ears and protect him from the wind and cold. Some winter dog jackets, like the Hurtta Extreme Warmer, have a built-in snood that can sinch over the ears to keep your dog warm.  

Frostbite on Dog Nose

One of the less likely spots for your dog to get frostbite is his nose, but it can still happen in extreme temps. Your dog’s hot breath will keep his nose defrosted in normal winter weather, but when the temp gets to 40 below with the windchill, that schnoz can get icy fast. 

Dogs that are more likely to get a frostbitten nose are the ones who spend long periods of time digging in the snow. Limit your dog’s outdoor playtime in extreme temperatures. For dogs that love to be outside, take warm-up breaks to prevent tissue damage to your dog’s sniffer. 

How to Treat Dog Frostbite

dog-staying-warm-under-blanket

How you treat dog frostbite depends on the severity of the damage and the time since the frostbite started. Immediate treatments involve warming your dog up to promote appropriate blood flow to extremities, but if you are only catching the after-effects hours or days later, then your treatment methods will vary greatly. 

The first step when treating frostbite at any stage is to call your vet. Even mild cases can worsen over time if you don’t treat them appropriately. 

Much like a burn, frostbite can continue to damage tissue for days after, so appropriate treatment from the beginning is your best chance to mitigate damage and help your dog heal fast. 

At-Home Dog Frostbite First Aid

To help you act quickly and limit and long-term damage, we put together a quick 5 step list for treating frostbite at home. Remember to call your vet as soon as you get your pet to safety for directions and next steps. 

Step 1: Bring Them Inside

At the first signs of frostbite, you should immediately bring your dog to a warm, dry place. Your house or your car is ideal, but if you are on a hike or doing some winter camping, then you may need to improvise a shelter. 

Even if you have no other tools at your disposal, getting them out of the cold and wind, and keeping them dry is key. 

Step 2: Grab a Blanket

The next step is to start warming them up. This process needs to be done slowly, so start by grabbing a blanket or some dry towels and gently wrap your dog. As they warm up, their body will start to dilate the small blood vessels in their extremities to warm the affected areas naturally. 

Your body heat can be helpful too, so for smaller pets, you can hold them in your lap, or cuddle up next to a bigger pooch to share some warmth. 

Step 3: Warm Around Your Dog

Increase the ambient temperature of the room you are in. Warm water bottles or small space heaters set on low can be used to raise the temperature of the room very gradually. 

Don’t place the heaters or water bottles directly on your dog, though. This can warm the too quickly or even burn the already sensitive and damaged skin. 

Step 4: Defrost the Affected Area

Once your dog has been stabilized and is safely warming, then you can start to focus on the frostbitten areas of your dog. To stop further tissue damage to extremities that were most affected by the cold, you can use tepid or lukewarm water.

This means that it should be barely warm. Think body temperature. Water that is about 100 F will feel just slightly warmer than your skin, so when you stick your finger in it, it should almost feel like nothing. 

This is especially helpful if you are dealing with a frostbitten paw that is covered in ice or snow. This can loosen the debris quickly so that you can get a better look at the extent of the frostbite damage. You’ll probably need to change the water after you’ve removed all the ice. 

Step 5: Protect the Affected Area

Once you’ve treated the area, it’s common for your dog to want to lick or scratch the area to try to soothe any discomfort. Although it’s a normal dog instinct, them fussing with the wound can make it worse and lead to infection. 

Whenever possible, protect the area. This could mean putting a cone on your dog to remove access to the area. If you have to, wrapping the wound is an option, but healing wounds need to breathe to heal, so it’s not the ideal solution. Talk to your vet about the best methods for treating a healing frostbite wound. 

Be Prepared for Extreme Cold

hurtta_extreme_warmer_lingon (1)

If you have a husky or another cold-weather-loving breed, keeping them indoors just isn’t an option. That’s why it’s important to know all of the risks of spending too much time outdoors. This means that frostbite isn’t the only potential issue. 

Hypothermia happens when your dog’s core body temperature drops too far. Hypothermia is a critical condition that can quickly become life-threatening if not addressed immediately. Just like frostbite, hypothermia is easier to prevent than treat, so make sure your dog has the right gear to protect them from the cold. 

Read our blog on the Best Winter Dog Coats to find the best and warmest gear for your pooch to survive and thrive through a Canadian winter. 

You can’t always control the weather, and it could change drastically day-to-day. Stay vigilant of the weather and try your best to plan your dog’s bathroom breaks and outings to times and locations that you can keep them safe.

Canada Pooch Gear

Is your dog a winter dog? Let us know in the comments how you keep your dog safe and warm on your winter walks and activities. 

Written by

Krystn Janisse

Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channeling some crazy cat lady vibes with her four lovable, but rebellious cats.

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