Treating a dog with frostbite

Our top 8 post of all time was DOGS AND COLD WEATHER: Winter Safety Series – FROSTBITE. Here it is again if you missed it. Hopefully, if you live in Kentucky, you won’t have to use this information for at least another 9 months. But the way the weather has been, you never know.

Frostbite is a condition where body tissue freezes. If left untreated, the affected area can die and will require amputation. Cold temperatures like those that we have experienced due to the polar vortex create favorable conditions for frostbite.

Dogs, like humans, could get frostbite. Especially on the tail, tips of the ears, or the pads of the feet. Prolonged exposure to cold weather could result in frostbite. The animal’s age may also be a risk factor.

Some research suggests that dogs cannot get frostbite (Ornes, 2012). Under ordinary circumstances, I would tend to agree, but frostbite does not occur under ordinary conditions.

What is ordinary? Taking your dog outside to relieve its bladder and bowels and immediately bringing it back inside.

One example of a dog with frostbite was reported by Good Morning America’s Ron Claiborne in 2011. According to the story, the dog faced unusual circumstances that resulted in the loss of his paws and tails. However, frostbite is not an ordinary occurrence.

Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. Veterinary assistant Christine Pace rescued him. She managed to raise money to pay for prosthetic legs and the company manufacturing the prosthetics generously gave two more free.

Frostbite in pets is serious as you can see from this report. To quantify the magnitude of an amputation, you would need to know the cost of the surgery plus the cost of the prosthetic plus the cost to fit the animal to the prosthetic. A prosthetic, according to Spadafori (2011-12) “can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000” each.


Because they can’t verbalize their pain, it is often difficult to know what’s going on with our pets. They do communicate to us but they are incapable of telling us about numbness in their limbs. Therefore, you’ll have to pay close attention to your companion animals to rule out frostbite.

Physically look for these signs and symptoms:

  1. Discoloration of the frozen area; skin that is pale or even blue in color initially, looking black and dead in later stages.
  2. Lack of pain or sensation at the affected area or a lot of pain, especially when the area starts to warm up.

The American Red Cross (2008, p. 79)

First Aid

Here are the first aid steps The American Red Cross (2008, p. 80) recommends for the treatment of frostbite:

  1. Move the dog to a warm environment.
  2. Spray the affected area with warm (not hot) water.
  3. Lightly apply a warm compress to the area (don’t apply a hot compress as it could cause burns). Do not rub or apply pressure to the affected area (this could cause further damage).
  4. Seek veterinary care to assess the damage.

It is important to seek veterinary care in order to treat the symptoms and possibly save affected limbs from amputation. Your vet will be able to assess the damage and decide if surgery is needed to amputate a defective limb.


Use common sense: if you wouldn’t spend a long time outside, don’t leave your dogs outside. Bring them in, even if they are normally outdoor animals. Give them shelter to keep warm so they can have a safe and comfortable winter.


Claiborne, R. (2011). New paws for injured pup. Good Morning America (ABC) .

Ornes, S. (2012, February 8). No frostbite for dogs. Science News for Kids , p. 3.

Spadafori, G. (2011-12). Pill Popping. Retrieved December 14, 2012, from

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