How to identify and treat frostbite in dogs
You might think that because your dog is covered in a fur coat from head to foot that it will be protected against frostbite. However, you would be wrong. Some breeds of dogs such as, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Huskies and, Malamutes are almost made for winter, most others are definitely not and like humans, if they are left out in the cold for too long, frostbite is almost inevitable. Frostbite occurs when tissue is damaged due to exposure to temperatures of 32 degrees F and below. The tissue damage can be superficial or major depending on the length of time that your dog is exposed; wet dogs, dogs with health conditions such as diabetes, and dogs that are exposed to sub-zero wind chills are especially susceptible.
The condition is described by the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia as, "Cell damage, tissue dehydration, and oxygen depletion caused by freezing and thawing can lead to blood-cell disruption, clotting in capillaries, and gangrene." Essentially your dog will freeze slowly from its extremities inwards; the condition is extremely painful.
Frostbite however, occurs in three stages of differing severity. So what should you be looking for?
The early stages, or first degree frostbite, are easy to miss but look for pale skin at the extremities of your dog such as, the ears, lips, tail, face, feet, and scrotum; the affected area may also be hard or cold to the touch. When the dog warms, its skin will look red, swell, and will become painful before turning scaly. If your dog's circulation has been badly affected, the tips of its extremities may even rub off; careful handling is essential. Second degree frostbite will also see your dog developing skin blisters. Third degree frostbite, the most serious, can be identified through your dog's skin turning dark or black over a period of several days. Where the flesh is badly injured, there is usually a clear difference/line between damaged and healthy tissue. Sometimes third degree frostbite results in gangrene and the necessity to amputate an affected area or limb.
Get your dog inside and gently warm the suspected frostbitten areas with warm, never hot, water. Do not rub or massage the affected areas as this could release toxins into your dog's bloodstream; you could also try applying a warmed Vaseline type ointment. Once your dog is warmer, gently dry it, taking care not to rub the affected parts; it is also important that you stop your dog from licking or scratching the frostbitten areas. The actual amount of damage that has been done to your dog's tissues will probably not manifest itself for several days. In the meantime, your dog will be in pain and may pain killers and may also require antibiotics to combat infections. It is advisable to take your dog to a vet as soon as you can. However, do not be tempted to turn up your vehicle's heating too high on the journey; warm or slightly cool is best.
The best way to treat frostbite is really not to have your dog get it at all through your vigilance on cold days and/or a selection of preventative steps, such as, not allowing your dog to be outside too long, heated shelters, and you, paying particular attention to your dog's ears, tail, and feet; you should also be aware that frostbite is often accompanied by often life threatening hypothermia, which should be treated first.