Frostbite in Dogs

Kelly Sulik, DVM
Written by:
Published: October 21, 2022
Frostbite in Dogs

What Is Frostbite in Dogs?

Frostbite is tissue damage caused by extreme cold. It happens when blood flow to the affected area is significantly decreased, and it results in injuries similar to thermal burns.

Frostbite usually occurs when the body’s natural response to low temperature causes blood flow to be redirected away from the extremities and toward the center of the body. This process protects vital organs, such as the heart, when the body is in danger of becoming too cold. However, it leaves the extremities, which are less critical to survival, unprotected by the oxygenation and warmth provided by blood.

Areas of the Dog Commonly Affected by Frostbite

The most commonly affected areas of the body are those furthest from the heart including:

  • Ear tips

  • Tail

  • Toes

  • Nose

  • Scrotum

These regions are also more exposed to wind and moisture, which can contribute to and intensify the development of frostbite.

Is Frostbite an Emergency?

Frostbite itself is not usually a cause of death but can occur in conjunction with hypothermia (low body temperature), which is often life-threatening. Tissue that is damaged by frostbite can become infected or even gangrenous, which can lead to a whole-body (systemic) infection.

Because of the likelihood of complications, if frostbite is suspected, the dog should be taken immediately to an emergency veterinarian for evaluation and treatment.

How Long Does It Take for Frostbite To Occur?

Frostbite can occur in as little as 15 minutes, or it can take several hours or even days to develop.

The onset of symptoms can vary greatly depending on the characteristics of the dog, such as the amount of hair, its size, age, and health status.

Temperature and concurrent exposure to wind and moisture greatly affect the onset of symptoms. Higher elevations may contribute to faster development of frostbite because of decreased oxygen in the air. 

What Does Frostbite Look Like?

Frostbite in dogs is usually identified by discoloration of the skin, which is often pale, blue, or gray in the initial stages. Once the tissue begins to warm, it may become swollen, reddened, and blistered. A moist discharge may be present. In severe cases, the tissue may turn black, which indicates that it has become necrotic (dead).

Symptoms of Frostbite

Frostbite in dogs may include:

  • Pain when touched

  • Cold, brittle-feeling skin

  • Discolored skin—often pale, blue, gray, or even black

  • Swelling and redness once tissue is warmed

  • Blistered or ulcerated skin

  • The presence of ice around the affected area

  • Low body temperature due to concurrent hypothermia

Causes of Frostbite in Dogs

Frostbite can occur at any temperature of freezing or below. 

The temperature at which frostbite develops varies depending on the characteristics of the dog, concurrent weather conditions, and the immediate environment.

In a smaller short-haired dog, the development of symptoms is expected to be similar to that of humans. For example, when the temperature is zero degrees Fahrenheit or below, it can take about 30 minutes for exposed tissue to get frostbite. At 15 degrees below zero, it would take approximately 15 minutes. In windy or moist conditions, frostbite can develop within 30 minutes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a healthy, cold-weather breed such as a Siberian Husky, frostbite would take longer to occur and would be less likely to occur at higher freezing temperatures. However, even dogs bred to withstand cold weather are susceptible to frostbite, especially in moist or windy conditions.

Moisture in the environment, such as wet bedding, does not allow for proper air flow or warming, making frostbite more likely to develop. Similarly, wind inhibits the body’s ability to stay warm.

Higher elevations, which have less oxygen in the air, can affect tissue oxygenation, making frostbite more likely to develop at warmer freezing temperatures.

Dogs with underlying diseases, such as diabetes mellitus, can have impaired circulation, making them more likely to develop frostbite. Very young dogs cannot regulate their own body temperature effectively, so they are also at increased risk. Very old dogs are likely to have decreased muscle mass, which affects the body’s ability to warm itself, making them more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Frostbite in Dogs

Frostbite is generally diagnosed based on physical examination findings. The presence of discolored and/or devitalized tissue in conjunction with low body temperature is very likely due to frostbite.

Recent exposure to cold temperatures, especially in combination with a moist environment, wind exposure, and/or concurrent illness, will also help a veterinarian to establish the diagnosis.

Because frostbite is usually identifiable with information from a physical exam and history findings, laboratory tests are generally not needed for a diagnosis. However, a veterinarian may recommend blood tests to evaluate for systemic infection or other illnesses that may impair healing. A culture and sensitivity may be recommended if infection or tissue death is present. If the history is uncertain or if the appearance of the affected areas is atypical, a biopsy may be recommended.

Treatment of Frostbite in Dogs

If you suspect that your dog has frostbite, you should immediately take them to the vet. You should keep your dog warm with the car heater and/or a warm towel. You can gently warm the affected areas with slightly warm (not hot) water or a moist towel.

It is important not to rub the skin or attempt to warm it with direct heat such as a hairdryer or heating pad, because this can worsen the tissue damage.

Once the vet has examined your dog, they will treat hypothermia first, if present. They will then slowly re-warm the frostbitten tissue. This process is painful to the dog, so pain medications will be administered. They will also treat any secondary infections with antibiotics and/or topical antiseptics and prescribe medication for pain management.

Severely affected areas may require surgery to remove nonviable tissue. If a very large area is affected, amputation may be necessary. Because it can take days to weeks for the full extent of damage to become apparent, surgical procedures will likely not be performed at the time of diagnosis.

Recovery and Management of Frostbite in Dogs

The time frostbite takes to heal depends on the severity of the tissue damage. Mild cases that have blood flow quickly re-established may heal within a few days.

More severe cases will often appear to get worse before they get better, as the extent of the injury presents itself. This process may take several days to over a week. Severe cases may take months to heal, and affected dogs are often left with permanent cosmetic damage.

If affected tissue has died (become necrotic), it will likely require surgery. Very severe cases that affect a large amount of skin or deeper tissues may require amputation.

Prevention of Frostbite in Dogs

Frostbite can be prevented by keeping dogs indoors during cold weather. Dogs should not be left outside for extended periods of time when the weather is very cold. If they do spend time outside during cold weather, they must have access to warm, dry bedding in a wind-protected area; however, this should be for temporary protection only, not as an alternative to keeping the dog indoors. Similarly, dog clothes such as sweaters and boots may help keep dogs warm for short periods of time, but should not be used as a substitute for keeping dogs indoors.

Frostbite in Dogs FAQs

At what temperature do dogs get frostbite?

Dogs can get frostbite at any temperature of freezing or below.

What does frostbite look like on dogs?

Frostbite looks like discolored skin, which may be blue, gray, black, or red. Affected skin may be blistered and may have a weepy or infected discharge.

Can dogs recover from frostbite?

Dogs can recover from minor cases of frostbite within a few days. Many cases of frostbite will result in permanent cosmetic damage. Severe cases may require medical and surgical intervention. In extreme cases, amputation may be necessary.

References

Cole, Lynette K. Veterinary Information Network. Skin Diseases Affecting the Canine and Feline Pinnae. 2008.

Healthpartners. How Long Does It Take to Get Frostbite? Answers, Treatment, and Prevention. 2022.

Schaible, Lacie. Hill’s Pet. Understanding and Treating Dog Frostbite. October 2011

Yin, Sophia. Veterinary Information Network. Cold Weather Safety for Dogs: Insights from a Sled Dog Veterinarian. January 18 2011.

Featured Image: iStock.com/IuriiSokolov


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