Some dogs enjoy the wintertime chill while others prefer warmer weather. All dogs are susceptible to harms that come with exposure to cold temperatures. Frostbite and hypothermia are two such harms, and knowing what to look for is important for those living in areas that experience cold weather.
How cold is too cold for dogs?
Every dog is unique as is their tolerance to cold weather. The generalized idea that, due to their fur, dogs are better equipped than people to deal with cold weather is untrue.
Some dog breeds thrive in cold temperatures and snow because of their thick and double coats, the climate from which they originate, or because they were specifically bred to live and work in wintry conditions. These breeds include Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies, and Saint Bernards. Though they tolerate cold weather better than others, these breeds can still suffer from frostbite and hypothermia. Many breeds, including greyhounds, Chihuahuas, and dachshunds, are less tolerant of cold weather because of size or thinness of coats.
Elderly dogs, young dogs, and those with certain diseases such as diabetes are quicker to develop hypothermia and frostbite than others because of reduced ability to regulate body temperature and poor circulation.
An important consideration is that temperatures do not have to be freezing or below to cause life-threatening hypothermia in dogs.
Frostbite occurs in freezing temperatures (32 degrees Fahrenheit) or below freezing temperatures. A dog’s body responds to freezing temperatures by reducing blood flow to areas nonessential to survival so it can protect parts essential for survival such as internal organs, including the brain. Without proper blood flow, the skin freezes. Depending on the amount of exposure this can cause minor, temporary, or severe skin damage. The most affected areas are ears, paws, tails, and noses. Wind, moisture, and high elevation increase the risk of frostbite in dogs.
Complications of frostbite can include pain, temporary or permanent skin damage, infection of the affected area, systemic infection, and tissue death requiring surgery to remove tissue, limbs, or other extremities.
Frostbite can occur within minutes of exposure or after several days. Signs of frostbite are skin discoloration (blue or gray, red when beginning to warm, black during tissue death), swelling, discharge, blisters, pain, and cold and brittle skin.
Frostbite often accompanies hypothermia. Hypothermia is life-threatening and should always be treated first.
Hypothermia occurs when a dog’s body temperature falls to dangerously low levels. Normal body temperature in dogs is between 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 102.5 degrees, and hypothermia begins when body temperature drops to 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia can be mild or severe but is always an emergency.
Mild or beginning stages of hypothermia can be uncomfortable for dogs but without treatment will quickly develop into life-threatening situations. Hypothermia can cause frostbite, shock, coma, organ failure, and death. The first signs of hypothermia include cold spots on the body (especially in areas prone to frostbite). It then progresses to shivering and shaking, muscle stiffness, difficulty walking, and lethargy. As the condition becomes more severe, hypothermic dogs stop shivering, collapse, suffer erratic breathing, and can die.
Treatment and Prevention
Dogs that present with symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia require immediate medical attention. Do not use hot water. Do not rub the skin. Do not use heating pads. Abrupt heating can cause further damage. Apply warm (not hot) towels and keep dogs in a warm environment while seeking medical attention.
Treatment depends on the severity and involves first increasing body temperature and warming frozen tissue gradually. It can also include pain management, treatment for infection, intravenous fluids, oxygen therapy, amputation, monitoring, and treatment of any consequential issues.
To prevent cold weather injuries, keep pets dry and protected. Never leave dogs alone in vehicles. While dogs are outside, provide shelter protected from wind with dry bedding. Shorten walks and check paws often for snow build up or use protective booties, and dress vulnerable pets in sweaters.
Cold weather gear such as coats and sweaters, booties, and straw for dog houses are not replacements for a warm, safe spot indoors. They are meant to help keep dogs warm while outside during exercise and other short-term periods. To keep dogs as safe as possible, bring them indoors during cold weather and supervise them as much as possible when they are outdoors. If you notice any signs of frostbite or hypothermia, contact you veterinarian or emergency clinic immediately.