Recognize frostbite: a telltale sign is swollen paws and discolored skin

Buzgó Csilla

2024. January 12 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

A dog roaming freely in the winter cold is at serious risk of frostbite. It's crucial to know exactly what to do; otherwise, despite good intentions, you may cause even greater harm to the animal.


A dog’s normal body temperature falls between 37.8 and 39.4 degrees Celsius. While most of them have an adequate coat thickness to maintain this range, unfortunate accidents can always occur. Frostbite comes with serious consequences.

Frostbite occurs due to the body’s defense mechanism. Near the surface of the body, blood vessels constrict, allowing less blood to circulate in that area, redirecting it to surround and keep the internal organs warm. In extreme cases, the blood supply to these body parts completely stops, leading to tissue necrosis.

How can frostbite manifest in dogs?

The freezing point, i.e., temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius, can affect even the robust bodies of large, sturdy dogs if they are forced to endure it for too long. In them, the extremities, nose, tail, and ears are primarily affected. There are health conditions that make dogs prone to frostbite, such as diseases associated with circulatory disorders (diabetes, heart problems), or a weakened immune system. Puppies and elderly animals are also more susceptible to falling victim to the cold.

The level of humidity, strong winds, and the amount of moisture the dog is exposed to can significantly influence the extent and speed of frostbite.

Symptoms of frostbite in dogs

These types of tissue damages are dangerous because the changes may not be immediately visible, especially on the bodies of long-haired dogs. It can take days for frostbite to become noticeable, although, since it often causes pain, the dog will involuntarily indicate that something is wrong.

Discolored skin: The outer layer may take on a bluish-gray hue, later turning reddish as it warms up and may swell. If the tissues have died, a noticeable dark blue, and later black, surface may appear. The dark nose may lighten, with tiny ice crystals outlining the nostrils. If left untreated, the dead part may become infected, emitting an unpleasant odor, and eventually may fall off.

Pain, stiffness: The skin is sensitive, cold, not elastic, and prone to cracking. The frozen tip of the tail does not react to touch. Ulceration and blistering may occur in some areas.

Treatment of frostbite

It’s important not to attempt to warm the animal immediately with hot water or a hot hairdryer, as this can shock the tissues. Just as you may have experienced that your hands felt hot water as scalding after being in the cold, the same can happen to the dog in this case.

Only begin warming the affected area if you can maintain the temperature, as re-freezing can cause even more damage to the already excessively cooled body part.

Never rub or massage the suspected injury areas, as this can further damage the already compromised skin! If possible, warm the dog using pre-warmed towels. You can pour lukewarm water on the affected skin if the dog is already at room temperature. It’s also a good idea to wrap the frozen area in warm, wet clothes during this process.

Despite the heart-wrenching expression of pain, do not attempt to alleviate your pet’s discomfort with pain relievers meant for humans, as this can lead to serious poisoning! Even if only a small area is affected by frostbite, as soon as possible, show it to the veterinarian so that they can provide proper care for the injury and prevent complications from developing!

How to prevent frostbite in your dog

It may seem obvious, but if you foresee that your dog will be in the bone-chilling cold for an extended period, for example, if you’re going on a hike or you know you’ll be leaving them outside the store, dress them up! A good pair of winter dog boots and a warm coat always come in handy in harsh weather conditions.

In this article, we wrote about why your dog might be shivering. It may not just be a sign of being cold!

cold frostbite veterinarian winter

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