When the weather turns cold and your puppy can’t get out of the wind and wet, frostbite danger puts puppies at risk. Even cold-loving furry dogs aren’t immune from frostbite. Puppies have the greatest risk because they’re closer to the ground and usually have less fur to protect them—or common sense to come out of the weather.
It doesn’t have to be a blizzard to cause problems, either. Even mild climates can suffer a cold snap, and the pets and their owners surprised and less prepared for inclement weather. When I worked as a vet tech in Kentucky and Tennessee, temperate climates compared to some states, we often treated adult dogs damaged by cold weather. They lost toes, injured nose tips, and in one memorable case, a Keeshond lost her curled tail due to frostbite. Puppies are even more fragile.
Fur provides great weather protection. Puppies stay warm by fluffing their fur, and that traps body-warmed air next to the skin as an insulating layer of protection. That’s one reason thickly furred pets have less problems. Puppies with thin fur are at greater risk of hypothermia, too—that’s where the whole body becomes so cold, the dog’s internal thermostat shuts down and can’t keep him warm.
Even pups with luxurious fur coats are subject to frostbite, though. Some parts of the puppy’s body have less fur coverage than others. Dogs typically suffer frostbite on the thinly furred parts of the body.
Wicked Wind Chill
Wind chill makes the cold temperatures more dangerous. Wind also strips away the protective layer of warm air trapped by fur next to a pet’s skin. Getting wet makes the cold even worse, because the fur can’t fluff and hold warm air. Body parts exposed to the wind or that come in contact with the icy ground—the ears, toes, tail, scrotum, tummy—have little protection from the cold.
Self Protection Leads to Frostbite
Pets normally conserves heat in cold weather by diverting blood circulation from the ear tips, toes and tail to protect the vital organs in the central part of the body. But reduced circulation to these extremities leaves the areas unprotected, making them a high risk for frostbite.
Tissue is 90 percent water. Cold freezes the tissue, which causes cells to rupture when the water expands, just like ice cubes overflowing the tray. The resulting damage—termed frostbite—can be painful and severe.
Signs of Frostbite
Frostbite can be hard to detect when the typical pale white, gray or blue color of frozen skin is hidden by fur. But pets may limp from frozen toes, frozen ear tips tend to droop, and the skin will be very cold, hard, and nonpliable.
You won’t see damage right away. Redness, blisters, and serious infection can often happen days later. If it's really severe, tissue develops a gangrene sort of appearance.
The affected area becomes leathery and insensitive to sensation. If not removed surgically, those areas will fall off. All cases of frostbite need veterinary attention immediately after you administer first aid at home.
First Aid for Frostbite
Thaw frozen areas by dunking them in lukewarm water. For areas hard to dunk, like the scrotum and ear tips, hold a warm wet towel against affected skin, and exchange for a fresh towel every few minutes. Don't rub frozen tissue! Rubbing makes the damage worse and reduces any chance of recovery.
Tissue that’s completely frozen may take up to twenty minutes to thaw. Less deeply frozen areas immediately turn very red as they re-warm, and the skin becomes softer, warmer and more pliable. Apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to the oozing area to help protect against infection, until your veterinarian can treat the pet.
Mild, first-degree frostbite usually resolves within a week or so. Bandages protect the area, minimize pain, and encourage healing. Antibiotics, pain medication, or even surgery to removed damaged or dead tissue may be necessary. It may take several weeks for the damage to completely heal.
The best option, of course, is to prevent frostbite by offering shelter to outdoor pets during severe cold. Refer to these cold weather tips for puppies. Even better, keep your pets inside and avoid the risk altogether.