Depending on the breed or type of mixed breed dog you have, even a short period of time outside can often lead to health problems in very cold weather. Surprisingly the most hardy of outdoor dogs including the Huskies, Malamutes and the Newfoundland and Great Pyrenees dogs can also occasionally have problems with frostbite, hypothermia and most particularly with foot problems as the snow packs up in between the pads of the feet.
Frostbite in dogs is most commonly seen on the ears; however it can also occur on the end of the tail, the toes, and with intact males on the scrotum. Frostbite usually occurs only on the areas of the dog, or any animal or human for that matter, that are farthest from the body core. It actually occurs because when the body core temperature starts to drop, the body responds by shutting down the blood supply to the farthest areas, retaining the essential body functions that occur in the core. This means that the small blood vessels that go to the tips of the ears, the toes, tail and genitals actually constrict and the blood is kept in the major organs in order to ensure body functioning and life.
This lack of blood flowing to the area causes oxygen deprivation to the tissues, which causes the cells to stop functioning. This means no chemical reactions are occurring in the tissue and no heat is being produced, plus there is no heated blood arriving to the same tissue. This reduces the skin and flesh temperature in that area, which can actually freeze. When this occurs it is considered to be frostbite and the dead tissue will eventually be sloughed off of the body once it thaws out. Since the tissue is dead, there is no way that even warming the area will regenerate tissue function or restore the blood supply.
Dogs that have poor circulation due to health problems, heart conditions, or obesity, or dogs that are on particular types of mediations are more prone to frostbite. Long, pendant types of ears like those seen on hounds or very thin skin on the ears like that on Chihuahuas are most likely to become frostbitten. Cold and wet conditions, often with a lot of wind, are also the most problematic.
When the ear or other body part is frozen, it will be very hard and icy cold to the touch. The skin will appear pale, but this may be difficult to assess on some breeds. The skin is not painful for the dog at this time, but will become increasingly painful as it is warmed. If you think the dog is suffering from frostbite, immediately get him or her indoors or at least into shelter from the wind and cold. Never rub the ear or body part between your hands, rather use warm compresses of clean, warm but not hot water, or simply hold the ear or paw in your hand. Avoid allowing the dog to lick the area as this can lead to increased tissue damage. Call a vet immediately if the skin becomes very red or swollen or if any dark discoloration of the area occurs. This typically is a sign of dead skin which can cause risk of bacterial infections and bleeding if the frostbite is deep. It is also important to have the dog examined for exposure to the cold, known as hypothermia.
Dogs that have frostbite may also be suffering from hypothermia. This condition can be fatal if the body core temperature drops significantly below normal. Generally hypothermia is only seen in dogs that are old, unhealthy or that are wet and also exposed to cold. Some breeds such as the hairless breeds, Chihuahuas and Whippets are very prone to hypothermia even under cold conditions easily tolerated by other short haired dogs. Symptoms typically include extreme shivering, pacing, rapid panting and breathing, lethargy and eventually coma and death.
The key to saving your dog's life if hypothermia is occurring or if you find a dog that is down or exhibiting signs of cold exposure is to immediately get them dry and warm. Use towels warmed in a dryer, a hair dryer on low heat or even a heating pad to start warming the core of the body. Ideally warm the entire body at the same time, using a dry, moderate to low heat. If there are no other options a warm bath will work, but the dog has to be completely dried before taking him or her outside, even to the get to the vet. Dry heat is more effective and there is less risk of the dog panicking, especially if he or she is not comfortable in water.
After the dog has recovered, especially in cases of mild hypothermia without any loss of consciousness by the dog, give them a teaspoon full of honey or sugar dissolved in a half a cup of warm water. Avoid feeding any heavy foods as the body's blood supply needs to restore the temperature before being diverted to the digestive system.
Snow can also be problematic, especially wet snow that can pack up in the crevices of the dog's feet. Snow between the pads partially melts and then freezes, forming ice balls that are both irritating and painful to the dog. The hair is actually frozen into the ice in the pads, literally holding them in place. Signs of this problem include limping, biting or licking at the pads or hold the feet up and off of the ground.
To resolve the problem simply bring the dogs indoors and allow the ice to melt. Avoid pulling or attempting to cut out the ball of ice unless it is absolutely necessary. Immersing the foot in warm water can speed up the process, but only if the dog can be kept indoors until the foot is completely dry. Any lesions or irritated areas should be treated with antibiotics and carefully monitored until completely healed as this can be a prime location for bacterial infections.
Clipping the hair between the pads can help prevent this problem, but also provides less insulation for the dog's feet. A better option may be investing in some leather dog booties that can be used to cover the feet and prevent the snow from being able to work up between the toes and pads.