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Frostbite on dogs paws

Paw health in the winter

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 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 are the first place to lose body heat in the cold, and one of the worst-case scenarios any pet can face in freezing temperatures is frostbite.

What are signs of paw frostbite?

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

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

If your dog shows any of these signs, move them indoors immediately. Once inside, 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. 

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 your dryer or a hair dryer to warm them, but never apply direct heat to 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 to 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’s 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 amputation.

What’s frostbite, and what causes it? 

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 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.

Are some dogs at higher risk?

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

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 do 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 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.

Staying active with 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 3 safety tips for wintery walks and runs:

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 plan 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 for 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!

Additional options to keep your pup stimulated

  • 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.
old dog playing in snow

📷 by Andreas Schmolmueller from Pexels

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 paws?

Look for signs such as paws that feel cold and brittle to the touch, 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.

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.