What are Dog Burns?
Burns are painful wounds created by tissue damage from heat, chemicals, electricity, friction, cold, or radiation. While burns in general are uncommon in dogs, they can be serious—even life threatening and require immediate attention.
Types of Dog Burns
Thermal (heat) Burns
Thermal burns are caused by heat. When heat energy is applied to skin faster than the tissues can absorb and release it, the heat energy starts to directly damage skin cells.
The three forms of thermal burns and some common examples include:
Scalds are thermal burns that occur from contact to the skin with hot liquid or steam. Examples include boiling water, hot cooking oil, and steam from steamers or irons.
Contact burns are caused by touching a hot solid object. Common examples of contact burns in dogs include heating pads, stovetops, radiators, heat lamps, car mufflers, and hot pipes.
Flame burns occur when skin is exposed to an open fire. This can occur from any open flame, such as bonfires, open cooking flames, and house fires. In addition to their skin lesions, dogs with thermal burns from flame burns may also have lung damage due to smoke inhalation.
Chemical burns happen when the skin comes in contact with a chemical or chemical fumes that are corrosive, such as strong acids, drain cleaners, car battery acid, paint thinner, gasoline, pool chemicals, and more. When such chemicals meet the skin, they can destroy cells and severely damage superficial and deep tissues. Chemical burns can be as serious (or even more serious) than thermal burns. These chemicals can also cause serious illness if ingested.
Electrical burns occur when an electrical current touches one point on the body, with or without an exit point. The burn can char tissue at in the initial site or at higher voltage cause extensive tissue damage (necrosis). The most common cause of electrical burns in dogs is chewing on electrical cords. Unfortunately, the resulting electrocution can cause severe internal injuries to the dog’s heart and lungs.
Mechanical (Friction) Burns
Friction burns are also known as rope burns, carpet burns, and rug burns. These types of burns occur when skin is scraped off by mechanical contact with a hard surface such as roads or carpets resulting in both an abrasion and a heat burn. These can occur in dogs as mild wounds, such as quick turns on a carpet, or can be severe such as road rush due to being hit by a car.
Frostbite (Cold) Burns
The opposite of heat burns, cold burns are caused by severe or prolonged cold. Ice crystals form in and around the skin cells causing cell damage and death (necrosis). In dogs, the extremities (ear, tail, and digits) are most susceptible to frostbite.
Radiation burns are due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (sunburns) or other sources. As radiation causes cell damage resulting in redness, high doses of radiation damage the cell’s ability to divide resulting in wounds or radiation burns. While sunburns are less common in dogs than people, they can occur, especially in hairless pups. However, the main source of radiation burns in pets is a consequence of radiation therapy used to cure or control cancerous tumors.
Burns are further classified based on the amount of skin layers affected and how deep the damage extends. The skin consists of three layers—epidermis (outermost), dermis (middle), and hypodermis (innermost, also referred to as subcutaneous layer). After the skin and subcutaneous layer, there are muscles, tendons, and bones. When burned, skin retains heat, so the specific classification or degree may not be apparent for up to three days after an injury.
Classifications for Burns
Superficial Burns (First-degree burns)
First-degree burns, also called superficial wounds, are superficial and are confined to the outermost layer of skin (epidermis). The affected area will be red, dry, and painful to the touch. These wounds typically heal quickly and completely, often within three to six days with minimal treatment and normally no scarring.
Partial-thickness Burns (Second-degree burns)
Second-degree burns are also referred to as partial thickness wounds and involve the epidermis and variable amounts of the dermis. These burns are characterized by blisters and drainage. With second-degree burns, healing takes months, wounds are at risk of infection, and scarring may be extensive.
Full-thickness Burns (Third-degree burns)
Third-degree burns, referred to as full thickness wounds, are full thickness injuries that have destroyed the epidermis and entire dermis down to the subcutaneous layer. The skin becomes leathery, charred, and lacks sensation. However, third-degree burns are less painful than first and second-degree burns because the nerves have been destroyed.
These burns form a dry, dark scab of dead skin called an eschar. Healing of full-thickness burns will be slow and prolonged with permanent scarring and a high risk of infection. Often, third-degree burns will require surgical treatment such as debridement and skin grafts. Severe burns can also cause systemic signs including shock, blood clotting issues, and multiple organ failures including liver failure, kidney failure, and damage to the heart and lungs.
Full-thickness Burns with Extension to Muscle, Tendon, and Bone (Fourth-degree burns)
Burns that extend beyond the dermis are sometimes classified as fourth-degree burns. These burns have the same characteristics as third-degree burns, but they affect deeper tissues such as muscles, tendons, and bones.
Are Burns in Dogs a Medical Emergency?
Burns may initially appear minor, but they can worsen within 72 hours. Depending on the type of burn, there may be other complications, such as damage to internal organs, trouble breathing, and irritation to the stomach or intestines. It is important to consider all burns to be medical emergencies; have your dog seen immediately by your veterinarian if It has been burned.
Treatment of Burns in Dogs
Burns are primarily diagnosed based on history and a physical examination. Since burns are not always immediately recognized due to your pet’s fur coat, the similar appearance of some burns to other wounds, and the delayed progression of some burns over the first three days, it is crucial to provide all history. Information may include any radiation therapy, recent surgical procedures where heating pads may have been used, exposure to fire or chemicals, and recent trauma. The more complete your history, the better the veterinarian will be able to determine the diagnosis.
Your veterinarian will also start with a thorough physical examination to assess for skin lesions (including blistering and eschars), all affected areas, and signs of trouble breathing, or systemic illness. If thermal burns are identified and the injury occurred within the past two hours, the veterinarian will likely start cooling the areas affected with cold water to limit the spread of tissue damage. Similarly, chemical burn wounds will likely be flushed with large amounts of water to stop the spread of tissue damage.
Mild burns may be treated symptomatically without further testing. A veterinarian may recommend topical therapy such as silver sulfadiazine, medical honey (e.g., silver honey), sugar dressings, and other antibiotic or wound healing ointments. After the pet has been examined, it is highly recommended to only apply topical medications as instructed by your veterinarian. Depending on the type and severity of burn, some topical therapies can make burns worse and cause the pet significant pain.
Never apply human ointments, topicals, or home remedies such as butter to burns. These products often contain ingredients toxic to dogs.
In cases of severe burns, a complete blood count, serum biochemistry, and urinalysis will likely be recommended. These tests will help your veterinarian assess your pet’s internal organ function (liver and kidney) as well as check protein levels, electrolyte levels, and assess dehydration. Your pet will likely need to be hospitalized and started on IV fluids to correct dehydration and shock.
Pain medications will be necessary to keep your pet comfortable. Infection of burn wounds is a major concern and periodic testing may be performed to help choose the correct antibiotics for your dog. Additional care may include oxygen therapy, plasma transfusions, and nutritional support.
While in the hospital, the veterinary staff will monitor your pet’s mental status, temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and effort, and ECG. Repeat bloodwork will likely be performed to track any changes and help guide therapy. Daily wound therapy will be key component to therapy and may include bandage changes, debriding dead tissue, and hydrotherapy. Advanced surgical techniques such as skin flaps or grafts are also used to aid healing.
Recovery and Management of Burns in Dogs
Recovery and prognosis of a burn in dogs depends on the type and degree of the burn. However, another consideration with burns is the size of the burn, or how much of the total body surface area is affected. All animals with burns should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.
Minor burns may heal quickly in a few days with no complications or scarring, but severe burns may take weeks to months to heal with potentially life-threatening complications. If your pet does survive, scarring and wound contracture are the biggest complications to dogs with severe burns.
When considering burns in dogs, it is ideal to prevent them from happening in the first place. This may be accomplished by using around hot objects (cooking equipment and liquids), storing chemicals in a safe and secure location away from pets, removing of electrical cords from areas pets (especially puppies) have access, and keeping pets indoors during times of extreme hot or cold. If a burn does occur, seek veterinary care immediately.
Not sure whether to see a vet?
Fossum, Theresa. Small Animal Surgery. 3rd ed. Elsevier; 2007.
Silverstein, Deborah, Hopper, Kate. Small Animal Critical Care Medicine. 2nd ed. Elsevier; 2015.
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