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Dogs typically communicate with their humans in one of two ways: verbally or physically. Interpreting whines and wags becomes second nature after you get to know your dog. But when it comes to canine health, simple observation can be crucial. Frostbite is a cold weather injury that threatens a dog’s extremities and could be very painful for pups. It can be hard to tell if your dog has frostbite, so regularly inspecting her skin, paws, ears and tail is essential—as long as you know what to look for.

What is frostbite?

Frostbite is an injury that occurs when the skin and surrounding tissues are frozen by exposure to very cold temperatures. It happens because the body enters survival mode, rerouting blood flow back to our core, away from our extremities, to conserve heat. The Mayo Clinic says there are three basic stages: frostnip, superficial frostbite and deep frostbite. The third stage can result in dead tissue, permanent skin damage and even gangrene, which may mean amputating the affected area! That said, catching frostbite early is easy and prevents the situation from turning dire.

How to tell your dog has frostbite

Even though canines are usually coated in thick, warm fur, they can still suffer from frostbite. VCA Hospitals says a dog’s tail, paws and ears are most vulnerable. The nose and genitals are also exposed to the elements and should be watched.

Keep in mind, these symptoms don’t necessarily develop right away. It could take up to one week for any of the following to appear. Here’s what to look for when examining your pup for frostbite.

Gray or blue skin

Often the first sign of frostbite is pale gray or light blue skin. This is tricky to spot in dogs if they have long hair or fur, so don’t be afraid to do a deep dive after spending long periods of time outdoors in cold weather. Again, start with the most vulnerable spots: tail, paws and ears.

Cold skin

If your dog’s skin (or a specific spot on her body) is still cold to the touch after warming up inside, it could mean frostbite is settling in.

Pain when touched

If your dog recoils, yelps or expresses discomfort when you touch her, check that spot for signs of frostbite. Again, if you touch an area and it either remains cold after your warm hands have touched it or it stays cold long after coming indoors, it could be frostbite.

Swelling

Frostbite typically causes skin to swell—especially when it begins to thaw. Take note of your dog’s behavior and movement after spending time in cold temperatures. If she has trouble sitting in certain positions or wagging her tail, it could mean her skin is thawing and swelling is causing her pain.

Blisters

Blisters from frostbite usually accompany other symptoms (blue-ish skin, pain, cold). Veterinary Emergency Group points out that blisters alone could be the result of other skin conditions, so check with your vet before jumping to the frostbite conclusion.

Black skin

Blackened skin or skin that is turning a deeper shade of blue is a very bad thing for canines. It means tissue is dying and there will likely be lasting damage. For dogs who already have black skin, noses and paw pads, inspect them gently as it may be difficult to detect severe frostbite. Note if your dog experiences pain when touched or if the skin still feels cold.

Peeling skin

Dogs that leave a trail of peeling skin behind them wherever they go may be suffering from frostbite. Check their extremities to see if there are changes in color, texture or temperature to the shedding area.

How to treat frostbite

While it might seem counterintuitive, don’t warm up the affected area unless you can keep it warm. Thawing and then refreezing is extremely painful and can cause further damage! Avoid rubbing the skin, too, as the friction will hurt your dog.

The best course of action is making sure your dog’s core body temperature is warm and she is in a cozy, dry area. Severe frostbite will require medical attention, so calling your vet or taking your pup into an emergency vet clinic is ideal.

How to prevent frostbite

Frostbite occurs after prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures, so one way to prevent your dog from developing it is to limit how long she stays outside when the temperature is below freezing. Take shorter walks during the wintertime and be sure to warm up sufficiently before heading out again.

Dog boots are excellent methods for protecting paws and paw pads from icy sidewalks and snowy ground. Since there aren’t many (any?) dog hats or tail covers on the market, putting a jacket or sweater on your dog can help maintain their core body temperature so blood will still flow to the extremities.

Finally, make sure to dry your dog thoroughly after coming inside. Snow, ice and sweat can freeze and stay cool against your dog’s skin long after coming indoors.

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