Cold Exposure and Frostbite in Dogs

Prolonged exposure to cold will result in a drop in body temperature. Toy breeds, breeds with short coats, puppies, and very old dogs are most susceptible to hypothermia. Because a wet coat loses its insulating properties, hypothermia is a potential complication for all dogs who have been submerged in cold water. Hypothermia also occurs along with shock, after a long course of anesthesia, and in newborn puppies who get chilled because of inadequately heated whelping quarters. Prolonged cold exposure burns up stored energy and results in a low blood sugar.

Signs of hypothermia are violent shivering followed by listlessness, a rectal temperature below 95°F (35°C), weak pulse, lethargy, and coma. Note that hypothermic dogs can withstand prolonged periods of cardiac arrest, because the low body temperature also lowers the metabolic rate. CPR may be successful in such individuals.

Treatment: Wrap the dog in a blanket or coat and carry him into a warm building. If the dog is wet (he fell into icy water), dry him vigorously with towels. Wrap the dog in a warm blanket and take his rectal temperature. If the temperature is above 95°F, continue the warm blankets and encourage the dog to swallow a sugar solution such as honey, or 4 teaspoons (32g) of sugar dissolved in a pint of water.

If the dog's rectal temperature is below 95°F, notify your veterinarian. While awaiting instructions, begin rapid warming by applying warm water bottles wrapped in towels to the dog's armpits and chest, then wrap the dog in a blanket. The temperature of the packs should be about that of a baby bottle (warm to the wrist). Take the rectal temperature every 10 minutes. Change the warming packs until the rectal temperature reaches 100°F (37.8°C). Do not apply heat directly to the dog, as this may cause burns. For the same reason, do not use a hair dryer to warm the dog.

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when a part of the body freezes. It often accompanies hypothermia. Frostbite tends to involve the tail, ear tips, pads of the feet, and scrotum. These parts are the most exposed and least protected by fur.

Frostbitten skin is pale white or blue. As circulation returns, it becomes red and swollen and may begin to peel. Eventually it looks black with a line of demarcation between live and dead tissue. Dead skin and tissue separates from the body in one to three weeks.

Treatment: Apply warm (not hot) water soaks to the frostbitten part for 20 minutes, or until the tissue becomes flushed. Never use snow or ice; tissue damage is made much more severe if thawing is followed by refreezing. Do not rub or massage the affected parts. Handle them carefully. Take your dog to a veterinarian for further evaluation and treatment.

Note that as sensation returns, frostbitten parts can be painful. Prevent the dog from biting at the skin and inflicting further injury. The total extent of damage may not be apparent for a week or more.

This article is excerpted from “Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.