Frostbite is a very painful and dangerous condition that can affect all sorts of animals if they get cold enough for long enough, and while the winters in the UK are not usually cold enough to pose an acute risk to our pets, dogs can and do get frostbite in the UK, which is usually entirely preventable.
If your dog is small, has a thin, short coat, is housed in a kennel or other outdoor area or works or goes out for long walks in cold weather, it is particularly important to be aware of the risk that frostbite can pose to your dog, and know how to protect them and recognise the signs of a problem in the making.
In this article, we will explain what frostbite is, how it occurs and how to prevent it, and how to spot the early indicators of frostbite before they become an acute problem. Read on to learn more.
Frostbite occurs when the skin literally freezes, which can happen with exposure to very low temperatures or even exposure to temperatures a little lower than is comfortable for long periods of time. Frostbite in the early stages is superficial, meaning that it causes damage to the surface layers of the skin only, but it progresses through different stages of severity and can, in the worst cases, go right down to the bone. Frostbite can kill the tissues that it affects, which may lead to the need for amputation of the affected area in the extremities such as the paws or tips of the ears, or removal of necrotized tissue in other areas of the body to prevent further damage.
In order for a dog to develop frostbite, they must be exposed to low temperatures for a reasonable period of time-long enough for the area in question to become dangerously cold and begin to freeze. When the body is very cold and cannot warm up, heat is drawn to the core to protect the organs, making extremities such as the tips of the ears, nose and tail most at risk.
The risk factors increase for dogs that have poor circulation or disorders that can cause poor circulation, such as diabetes-and frostbite is more likely to occur during periods of rest, such as if a dog is kept outside and goes to sleep, than it is to happen when the dog is moving around during exercise.
Exposure to cold temperatures narrow the blood vessels and limit the flow of warm blood to the extremities and in cases of prolonged exposure, will accompany hypothermia, which further speeds up the development and spread of frostbite.
The risk of frostbite increases for every degree the temperature drops below ambient level, and of course, very low temperatures increase the risk of frostbite. However, the length of time of exposure to a low temperature is more of a factor than the temperature itself, which accompanied by lack of movement, helps to increase the risk.
Dogs that go out walking in very cold weather but that keep moving and if necessary, wear protective coats and boots and are then able to warm up properly afterwards are highly unlikely to be in danger of frostbite-but a dog that spends a lot of time outside without moving around much, or that is kennelled or otherwise kept in a place that is not warm enough to support their body temperature will be at risk when the weather is cold.
Dogs that do not have a lot of body fat or that have a very thin or short coat like the greyhound are more at risk than others, and such dogs need to be protected against extremes of cold. It is also important to ensure that no dog is exposed to temperatures even a little below what is comfortable for them regularly or for prolonged periods of time-such conditions increase the risk of frostbite and are also apt to lead to other problems such as loss of condition, a higher risk of hypothermia, and weakening of the immune system.
If you find for any reason that your dog has been exposed to cold temperatures that their own coat or their accessories have not been able to cope with and they were also not moving around much or exposed for a long period of time, it is important to consider the risk of frostbite or other issues such as the early stages of hypothermia.
Frostbite will affect the extremities first, which means the tips of the ears and tail, the end of the nose, and the toes. Affected areas will feel cold to the touch and also be very stiff and potentially, unable to move. Frostbite can also lead to the affected areas appearing either very pale or very red in the early stages, and if frostbite continues to develop and the dog is not warmed up, these areas will spread and begin to necrotise, turning black as the skin tissue dies off.
As frostbite develops it also works deeper into the tissue, and can begin to affect the muscle, bones and organs as well as the surface of the skin.
If you spot any of these signs or even if your dog appears fine but you know they have become dangerously cold, call your vet immediately-warming the dog up is of course a vital part of preventing or limiting damage, but this must be handled carefully, and is not a matter of simply getting the dog as hot as possible as fast as possible.
In extreme cases, frostbite may require the amputation of affected extremities and the removal of dead skin, and it can prove fatal if left untreated-so never overlook the potential dangers, and take special care of your dog in the winter, or if they are particularly vulnerable to the cold and/or spend a lot of time outside or in cold places.