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Dog Frostbite

The boss always takes me for a walk or hike at lunch time, usually at a local park.  I always look forward to it.  But today in Wisconsin, it was not fun.  The ambient temperature was -15°F and the wind chill was -45°F.  I didn’t put up any resistance to making it a quick “business only” trip.  Neither one of us wanted frostbite.  As a public service to my fellow K-9s living in the north and for the imagination of those living in the south, I would like to share what frostbite is, what to look for, and how to have your human treat it. 

Frostbite is a condition that can occur as a result of exposure to freezing or subfreezing temperatures.  On dogs, it most commonly affects the tips of the ears, the tail, the scrotum, and the feet (especially the toes).  Blood flowing through the vessels not only supplies oxygen nutrients to tissues, it also provides heat.  If a portion of the body, such as an ear, becomes very cold, the blood vessels in that area constrict (become smaller) to help the body conserve heat.  The tissues of the ear then have even less blood supply and can eventually become as cold as the surrounding temperatures.  If the tissue actually freezes, it will die. 

Initially frostbitten tissue may appear pale or gray in color.  The area will be cold to the touch and hard.  As the area thaws it may become red.  In severe frostbite, within several days the tissue will start to appear black in color and will eventually slough over the course of several weeks.  The tissue at this point will generally not be painful.  However, as the tissue warms, frostbite becomes very painful. 

To treat, tell your human to do the following: 

Warm the affected area rapidly with warm (NEVER HOT) water.  The recommended water temperature is 104 -108° F.  Use warm compresses or soak the affected area in a bowl of warm water.  Do NOT use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer.  After warming the area, dry it gently and thoroughly.  Do NOT rub or massage the affected area.  Contact your veterinarian or emergency clinic and have your pet examined immediately.  Keep your pet warm during the travel to the veterinarian.  For instance, wrap your pet in a dry towel or blanket that has been cycled in a warm clothes dryer for several minutes.  Do NOT warm a frostbitten area if it cannot be kept warm.  Refreezing will greatly injure the tissues.  Do NOT give any medication for pain unless instructed to do so by the veterinarian.  Many human pain relievers can be toxic to dogs.

Hopefully, this advice will prevent you from getting frostbite and educate your human on preventing and treating it.  I may discuss heat stroke in a future blog, but right now, I can’t even imagine what that is like.