Frostbite 101 for Pet Owners: What You Need to Know

Winter is officially here, and with it comes the wonders of fun in the snow and sparkling winter beauty. But, it also brings the risks of winter weather. Cold temperatures can cause problems for dogs and cats, and just as in humans, pets can suffer from frostbite. But because signs of frostbite in animals can take several days to appear and be a challenge to detect, it’s essential to know what it is, how to prevent it, and what to do if it occurs.

What is Frostbite?

When temperatures dip to 32 degrees Fahrenheit and below, the body begins to shunt blood flow away from extremities and toward vital organs to keep core body temperature stable. Decreased blood flow to areas such as the tail, paws, and ears, and prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can allow tissues to freeze, causing tissue damage.

Signs of frostbite include swelling of the affected areas, blisters or skin ulcers, and blackened or dead skin. In addition, as areas of frostbite thaw, they may become extremely painful due to inflammation. Secondary bacterial infections can occur if the tissues become necrotic (die) and slough or fall off, exposing the more sensitive tissues underneath the protective skin barrier.

How to Prevent Frostbite in Pets

When it comes to extreme weather, the general rule is that if it is too cold outside for you, it’s too cold for your pet. But, of course, many pets still need to go out to answer nature’s call, and some cold-weather breeds enjoy being outside to explore and exercise if the temperatures aren’t too extreme. However, it’s critical to take some precautions to ensure frostbite does not occur.

  • In extremely cold weather (zero degrees Fahrenheit and below), keep trips outside as brief as possible. Frostbite can take as little as 30 minutes to set in.
  • If walks are necessary, provide your pet with a warm jacket or sweater and dog booties when outside in temperatures 45 degrees Fahrenheit and below.
  • Ensure your pet stays dry when outside in the elements. Wet areas of the body are more vulnerable to frostbite.
  • Never leave an animal outside in cold temperatures without warm, dry shelter available.

First Aid and Treating Frostbite

If you’re sure your pet has frostbite, there are a few things you can do at home to begin first aid while you’re preparing your pet for care.

  • First, move your pet to a warm, dry place.
  • Warm a towel or use slightly warm (never hot) water on the frostbitten areas to gently return warmth to the tissue.
  • Do not massage or rub the frostbitten areas or use a direct heat source such as a heating pad or hairdryer, as these things can cause further damage and discomfort.  
  • If you cannot keep the frostbitten areas warm after initial warming, bring your pet to the veterinarian immediately. Re-freezing or additional cold exposure can damage frostbitten areas even further.

Once you have stabilized your pet, a veterinarian should examine them to determine the extent of the damage and if further treatment is needed. Pets with frostbite are often prescribed pain medication and antibiotics, and severe cases may require surgery or even amputation.

If you’re headed somewhere cold, keep these tips in mind. Should you believe your pet is suffering from frostbite, it’s best to seek care from your primary care veterinarian. Additionally, you can book an appointment via Vetster (linked on our homepage) for non-emergent, non-life-threatening cases and/or consultations, where you can speak with a licensed veterinarian from the comfort of your own home. Vetser is a great resource to use while traveling with your pet in tow. When you have a pet health concern away from home, Vetster will connect you to a licensed veterinarian in your area with 24/7 online veterinary appointments.

If you’re dealing with a more severe, life-threatening case of frostbite, please give us a call at 757-935-9111.

About Us

The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.