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As winter approaches, it's important to keep your dog warm and dry. Cold, damp conditions can be hazardous for unprotected paws, ears and tails. In fact, frostbite on dogs' paws is one of the more common winter injuries seen by veterinarians.
There are no hard rules for how cold it has to be for a dog to be at risk for frostbite or how long they should be exposed to winter conditions. However, water, brutal winds and touching metal can make dog frostbite more likely. Read on to learn more about how frostbite affects dogs.
Clinical Signs of Dog Frostbite
Commonly affected areas include body parts that have thinner coats and less insulation, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. Body regions with increased exposure to wind and moisture, including the tips of the ears, noses, paws and tails, are also at increased risk for developing frostbite if not adequately protected from winter's bite.
The physical appearance of dog frostbite may vary based upon severity of the injury and how recent the exposure was.
Shallow frostbite results in skin paler in color than the surrounding area. The skin may peel and lose hair, develop blisters or turn red. The affected area may also be numb or painful. Deeper freezing causes the affected skin to harden. This area may be cool to the touch, even when the dog is no longer exposed to cold temperatures. Darkened skin is typically the most severely affected. This skin may weep, bleed or secrete yellow-green material. With time, severe injuries may cause tissue death and sloughing
Any dog exposed to freezing temperatures can develop frostbite, though those that are not acclimated to winter weather are at increased risk, along with those with thinner hair coats. Younger and older dogs are both more likely to develop the condition, as they are more prone to unstable body temperatures. Dogs with compromised circulation, such as those with diabetes mellitus, are more likely to suffer from dog frostbite.
How Vets Diagnose and Treat Dog Frostbite
Frostbite on dogs' paws has a classic appearance and is typically easy to diagnose based upon known exposure to winter temperatures.
If caught promptly, treatment consists of gentle warming and supportive care. If your pet is suffering from cold body temperatures overall then this will also be part of the treatment plan. It should be noted that frostbite should not be treated at home. If you notice signs of frostbite on your pup, please leave it to the experts, as you can do more harm than good if you warm the skin too rapidly.
For severe frostbite, surgical removal of affected regions may be necessary, unfortunately. Your vet will likely wait to operate on damaged tissues until the full extent of the tissue is understood. Because damage to the tissues doesn't show up immediately, this does require time and a few days of patience. Rest assured frostbite does not spread to other tissues once the damage occurs; it just takes a small amount of time for all the damage that has occurred to be clearly visible, according to VCA .
Avoiding Frostbite on Dogs' Paws
During winter weather, paw pads can dry and crack. Ask your vet for a good pad moisturizer and avoid human hand moisturizer, as this can soften the pads and lead to injury. Many of the chemicals that are used to melt ice and maintain safe roads and walkways are quite caustic for puppy paws. To avoid sores and blistering on your pup's paws, you can slather them with a layer of petroleum jelly prior to outdoor walks. This can prove messy, but only a small amount is needed to do the trick. Wintertime booties are another way to protect your dog's paws from the harsh winter elements. Surprisingly, most dogs adapt very quickly to booties, though initially you may want to prepare for some belly laughs.
When the temps drop and your dog's paws get wet, foot fur is an easy place for ice to form and cling to. To prevent these unwanted "footsicles," comb the foot hair out, especially from between the toes, and trim the fur evenly to the level of the paw pads. If you prefer, a groomer can also perform this quick service and get a closer cut than you will likely be able to achieve at home.
Routine nail trims are a wise habit to get into, starting from the earliest of puppy days. When they aren't kept nice and short, the nail is at risk for getting caught on something or splitting. In the wintertime, cold temperatures make nails more brittle and prime for damage. Ask your vet's staff for advice on how to properly trim your pup's nails if you have not established this routine.
When the temperature is brutal, explore other winter exercise activities and winter safety tips here. With a small amount of preparation, your pup can join in the winter fun safely and frostbite-free.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible, is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.