Frostbite is damage to skin and other tissues caused by extreme cold. Blood vessels just below the skin surface start to narrow or constrict when they are exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This protective mechanism helps maintain a warm core body temperature by sacrificing the skin's blood supply and redirecting it to the core. The combination of cold temperature and reduced blood supply will cause severe tissue injury. Frostbite is most likely to happen to body parts farthest from the core and in tissues with a lot of exposed surface area. The paws, ears, and tail are the most common tissues to be affected in dogs and cats.

Owners can look for signs such as a discoloration of the affected area of skin. This discoloration is often pale, gray or bluish. Other signs include coldness and/or brittleness of the area when touched, pain when you touch the body part(s), swelling of the affected area(s), blisters or skin ulcers, and areas of blackened or dead skin. As frostbitten tissues thaw, they may become red and very painful due to secondary inflammation. Frostbite sometimes does not appear within the first few days of exposure to cold temperatures, especially in places like the tip of the tail or the ear tips. Severely frostbitten areas will become necrotic or die. As the tissue starts to die, it changes to a dark blue or black color. Over a period of time, several days to weeks, it sloughs or falls off. During this time, pus may form or the tissue may develop a foul smell, due to a secondary bacterial infection. Dogs with heart disease, diabetes mellitus, or other conditions that cause reduced blood flow to the extremities are at a greater risk for frostbite.

Frostbite is diagnosed based on the history and physical exam. If your dog was exposed for a prolonged time or to extremely cold temperatures, blood and urine tests may be performed to look for damage to internal organs. If you suspect your dog or cat has frostbite, please take them to see a veterinarian immediately. You can start to help with treatment by moving your dog or cat to a warm, dry area as quickly and safely as possible. Slowly wrap the body in warm, dry towels or blankets. Do not use direct dry heat such as a heating pad or hair dryer. Do not give any pain medications unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian. Many human pain relievers, including acetaminophen and aspirin, can be toxic to pets.

The prognosis for frostbite depends on the extent of your dog's injuries. Mild cases of frostbite usually resolve with little permanent damage while more severe frostbite may result in permanent disfiguration or require amputation.


Dr. Allani Delis ,DVM, is an associate at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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