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Dog paws in snow

The essentials

  • It doesn’t take long to freeze your dog’s feet — Depending on the climate, your pup can get frostbite in as little as 30 minutes.
  • It doesn’t have to be below freezing for frostbite to occur — While frostbite occurs most commonly in extreme cold, it can happen before the temp drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • There are steps you can take to prevent frostbite — An ongoing winter “paw care” routine is key to keeping your pup’s feet protected during the harsh winter months.

Our pups spend the majority of the day on all fours. Those paws are made for movement, and one of our most important jobs as pet owners is to make sure all their mitts and toe beans are protected .

Every paw pad is a little different in size, color, and texture. Your dog’s skin and paw pads act as the first line of defense for a dog’s bones and joints.

Naturally, perennial paw health is key for a happy dog, but wintery conditions come with an even more specific set of risks. Foot pads and your dog’s paws are the first places to lose body heat in the cold (as well as their ears), and one of the worst-case scenarios any pet can face in freezing temperatures is frostbite.

There is no set amount of time that your pet has to be outside to be at risk for frostbite. Once your pet drops their core body temperature, their extremities (such as their tail and feet) are at a greater risk of frostbite injury.

Below, we’ll cover all you need to know about frostbite as a condition, as well as possible causes and preventative measures to keep your pet as safe as possible.

What’s frostbite? 

Frostbite is an injury that occurs most often (but not always) in weather conditions below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Just like with humans, exposure to extreme temperatures for long periods of time constricts a dog’s blood vessels and blocks the flow of oxygen to the outer parts of their body. This causes the skin and deeper tissues to freeze and other additional damage.

Frostbite can happen in less than 30 minutes, especially if snow, ice, or moisture is present. If left untreated, it can cause nerve and tissue death and potentially lead to loss of the body part—even if a warm towel is used to help your pet recover from winter weather.

Identifying frostbite on dog’s paws

The first indication that your pup has or is on the way to frostbite is in their behavior. Major symptoms and signs of frostbite include:

  • Cowering and hunching
  • A slower gate or hesitance to walk
  • Licking their paws
  • Keeping at least one paw off the ground while standing
  • Sitting, shivering, and whining
  • Visible severe tissue injury

🚨 If at any point your dog’s paws or extremities turn pale or blue (due to lack of oxygen) or exhibit darkened/blackened discoloration, seek emergency veterinary help immediately.

Symptoms of frostbite

If your dog shows any of these signs, move them indoors immediately and consider a gentle reheating process to boost your dog’s core body temperature. You can begin to increase your pet’s circulation and temperature using warm blankets, placing them in a warm area, and wrapping certain parts of the body that may have been exposed to the cold.

As you do this, have your pup sit or lie down to make them more comfortable. This will keep weight off their paws and give you better access to check for symptoms. If they have frostbite their foot pads will:

  • Feel cold and brittle to touch
  • May become discolored (pale pink, white, gray, blue, or black)
  • Have swelling, blisters, cracks/legions, and inflammation
  • Areas of blackened or dead skin

👉 Be sure to check affected areas for any attached ice or snow, particularly between the toes. 

Stages of frostbite in dogs

Knowing the stages of frostbite in dogs can help you to determine how your pet’s condition has progressed. It is important to keep in mind, however, that mild cases can look different compared to severe tissue injury caused by frostbite. Additionally, your best friend may react differently if they have an underlying medical condition or are especially sensitive to the combination of cold temperature and wind.

With this in mind, the clinical signs and stages of frostbite in pets can look similar to that which is seen in humans:

Stage 1: Frostnip

This is considered to be “mild” frostbite to many and it doesn’t usually cause permanent damage. Symptoms associated with this stage include pain, tingling, or numbness—especially as you start to warm your pet’s beans.

Stage 2: Superficial presentation

Superficial, in this case, means that the damage can be on the surface of your pet’s skin. While there may be little permanent damage, your pet might experience more severe pain or discomfort, as well as surface-level liquid-filled blisters. We recommend seeking vet support at either Stage 1 or Stage 2 to help you halt the progression as much as possible.

Stage 3: Deep presentation

This is generally considered to be severe frostbite and is indicated by blue or white skin, difficulty moving the affected limb or extremity, and large fluid-filled blisters. You might notice the skin blackening as necrosis (tissue death) happens. If you see these symptoms in your pet, it’s important to get to the vet as soon as possible to avoid widespread infection throughout the dog’s body.

Potential causes of frostbite in dogs

There are many possible causes of frostbite in dogs, including:

  • Wet feet: In the cold winter months, it’s easy for your pet to get their feet wet on walks and outings. However, even a little bit of dampness can lead to frostbite later on—so keeping your pet’s feet dry is a must. You might ask your vet about a recommended home care routine to give your pet the best chance at avoiding frostbite in the winter. Keep warm dry towels ready, as well as a gentle, pet-safe heater for thawing tissue and cold noses.
  • Lower temperatures: While uncommon, it is possible for your pet to experience frostbite in cold temperatures that aren’t quite below freezing. When you notice the seasonal shift, consider investing in dog booties or protective gear to keep your pet’s feet warm and dry.
  • Wind: Wind chill is an underestimated force when it comes to maintaining and regulating your pet’s temperature . If it’s excessively windy or cold, consider keeping your pet in. If you can’t, it’s best to invest in cold-weather gear that’s pet-specific, including ear protection, paw protection, and general waterproof covering devices.

Are some dogs at higher risk of developing frostbite?

Any pet can fall victim to frostbite under the wrong circumstances. While some dog breeds are better suited for colder conditions, like Siberian huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds, no pup should ever be left unattended in extreme weather for a prolonged period of time.

Some dogs, however, do run a higher risk of overexposure than others:

  • Puppies
  • Small dogs
  • Short-haired breeds
  • Senior pups
  • Disabled pups
old dog playing in snow

How to treat frostbite on paw pads

Paw frostbite requires immediate care and intervention. Most cases are mild and may only cause minor cosmetic damage, but frostbite is still a medical emergency and should always be evaluated by a veterinarian to prevent long-term damage.

That said, if you suspect your dog is suffering from paw frostbite, here are several fast and necessary steps to take action:

Bring your dog inside to get them dry and warm — This is the first and most important step to prevent further injury. Since your pup’s blood flow will be restricted to prioritize core warmth, getting their core temperature up will allow better circulation to their legs and feet. The goal is to get their body temperature back to normal and above 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture of any kind will only worsen the issue, so make sure all exposed areas, especially their paws, are dried off before treating them.

Towels, blankets, and clothes are a must! — Once your dog is dry, place warmed towels or blankets on frostbitten areas—you can use a portable heater or hair dryer to warm them, but never apply direct heat to the skin.

Warm, tepid water can be used, but be mindful of the temp — 100 degrees Fahrenheit is the sweet spot and should never exceed 108 degrees Fahrenheit—if the water is too hot it can exacerbate the injury. Use a washcloth instead of soaking or pouring water directly onto your pup’s feet.

👉 Don’t use lotions, ointments, or other products meant for humans!

Avoid rubbing or massaging their paws — Direct pressure on frozen tissue can be very painful and could cause more damage. Additionally, thawed skin will become red and highly sensitive as circulation returns. Try to keep your pup from standing, walking, or putting weight on their feet.

Talk to your vet — Once you get your dog dry, comfortable, and their core temperature regulated, call your vet for a consultation.  They can assess the extent of tissue damage, provide resources, and give medical/surgical support if needed.

🚨 Depending on the extent of the frostbite, it may require antibiotics, intravenous fluids, or in extreme cases, shock therapy and/or amputation.

How to prevent frostbite

The easiest way to avoid frostbite is to limit outdoor activities with your pup when weather conditions are at their wintery worst. A good rule of thumb is: if it feels too cold outside for you, it’s too cold outside for your pup.

Watch those paws — When you venture out, check your dog’s paws regularly and watch for any abnormal behavior. Dogs are naturally lower to the ground than you are, so they can get colder a lot faster!

Stay away from wet areas — Avoiding water and keeping your pet dry ensures that their body temperature won’t drop too fast.

👉 Ice and snow can easily become trapped between your dog’s pads and toes. 

Trim your doggie’s toe fur — Keep any long hair on your pup’s feet trimmed to avoid ice and snowballs forming on and between paw pads. And when you do come back inside, always wipe off their feet and legs until they’re completely dry.

Also, consider some winter gear!

  • Water-resistant coats and sweaters. These are a fun and easy way to keep a dog’s core temp up and protect them from the elements.
  • Dog booties. Your pup might be a little dubious at first, but boots (like these super grippy booties) will provide additional traction and protection for strolls in wintery conditions, and who doesn’t love a pup in a cute outfit? Extra warmth for the win!
  • Reflective leashes, collars, and harnesses. Provide a layer of safety for those overcast days.
  • Paw balms and waxes. These are a must, especially during cold weather. Balms help prevent cracked skin and dry paws. Our favorites to protect those toe beans are Natural Dog Company’s PawTection and QualityPet’s Paw Nectar.

Caring for your pup in the winter

Just because the winter months make outdoor activities a little trickier doesn’t mean you have to avoid them altogether. As we know, dogs are born to run, walk, fetch, and play. Keeping them cooped up will only result in boredom, and we can’t have that!

Here are three safety tips that can help you to can help you to care for your pup outdoors in the snowy season(s):

Always check the weather before an outing — This will prevent you from getting caught in a sudden winter storm. Late mornings and early afternoons are often the warmest and sunniest. Stick to familiar routes and have contingency plans and let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back.

Consider road and sidewalk surfaces — Chemicals in rock salt are a natural irritant, so you never want to expose your pup without protection. Icy conditions are dangerous and can cause serious injury to both dogs and humans. All roads are highest in the middle for moisture run-off and, if traffic allows, are most likely to be free of snow, ice, and puddles.

👉 Avoid shaded areas as much as possible. 

Set a pace that will keep you and your pup warm, but make sure not to overdo it — This will help prevent exhaustion, dehydration, and hypothermia, all of which can be prerequisites for frostbite. Remember, younger dogs and older dogs are more prone to overexertion and both need extra caution for joint health. Beware of post-run/walk chills!

Indoor dog parks (if available) — If you have an indoor dog park near your home, consider taking your dog for a fun day of indoor playtime with other pups.

“Nose work” — Try playing scent games with your dog. The ASCPA has great tips on simple scenting games that your pup will enjoy and are easy for you to set up.

New toys — What dog doesn’t love new toys? Keep Fido on their toes with new puzzles, balls, and squeaky toys.

Cold weather for senior and disabled pups

Since older pets and paralyzed pets have a much harder time regulating their own body heat, taking extra precautions is a must.

Help your senior doggie stay warm — Senior dogs with arthritis or hip dysplasia can be hypersensitive to weather changes — colder temps can aggravate their bones and joints, so outfitting them in a winter ensemble can really help alleviate conditions.

Support joints with a supplement — Daily joint supplements can also help prevent aches and pains that are aggravated by the weather. But always consult your vet before starting your dog on a new regimen.

Swap wheels for skis — For pets with paralysis, swapping their wheels for skis is a great way for them to keep moving and enjoy the wintertime.

And remember, a pup’s paws are the first contact they have with the world. Keeping their foot pads dry and warm is the best way to maintain their body temp and protect them from those tough winter days.

Frequently asked questions

Can frost hurt dogs’ paws?

Snow and ice can potentially dry out your dog’s paw pads or lead to frostbite. It’s important to protect your dog’s feet against extreme winter conditions with gear such as dog boots.

How do you know if your dog has frostbite on their paws?

Look for signs such as paws that feel cold and brittle to the touch, are discolored (pale pink, white, gray, blue, or black), have cracks/legions or inflammation, and any areas of blackened or dead skin. According to the ASPCA, frostbite may not be fully recognized until a few days after the damage is done. In fact, it can take days or weeks after the initial exposure to develop—so be sure to check ear tips, tail tips, and paw pads for any injury even after your dog is warm.

How long does it take for a dog’s paw to get frostbite?

Frostbite can develop in less than 30 minutes in conditions below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.