Paws Paws Paws. That’s pretty much been the focus of life here for the last week. I mentioned in last week’s post that Maggie and Skip might have had “frostbitten” paws; little did I know how deep into the weeds of frostbite and dog paws I would go. I’ve a learned a lot, (understatement of the year), and thought it might be helpful if I passed some of it on, not to mention giving others, with more experience, a forum to share what they know.
First, let’s talk about “frostbite.” What is it, and how do you diagnosis it on a dog’s paws? (By the way, if you live where it’s warm, this might not be of interest. But then again, you never know.) Wikipedia has a great article on frostbite, although, not surprisingly, it talks about it in humans. But it’s a great start. In simple terms, frostbite occurs when tissues, usually in the extremities, like fingers and toes, are actually frozen.
But there’s actually something called “frostnip,” that I’ve never heard anyone talk about until doing the research. In both “bite” and “nip,”, the blood vessels are constricted by the cold and the area loses its blood supply. In frostnip, the skin can turn red initially and pale in color later because the blood vessels are restricted or damaged. The areas, to us humans, at first feel very cold, and eventually numb.
Mild or superficial frostbite occurs when ice crystals actually begin to form in the skin. The skin often begins to feel hot, and once the area is warmed up, looks mottled or purple. (I was crazed with excitement when I saw snow for the first time in Tuscon AZ, age nine, and cried bitterly “It burns!” when I tried to play with it.) Blisters often form under the skin, as much as 36 hours after exposure. Severe frostbite occurs when the deep tissues are affected. The damage can be permanent, and the areas, usually hard and black, have to be surgically removed. Check out the images of frostbite versus frostnip, with a warning: The images are not for the squeamish.
Now, to dogs. Just like us, frostnip and frostbite occurs most often in the extremities. In Skip and Maggie’s case, it looked as though their paws were affected, and just as in humans, discoloration was the first sign of it. Diagnosis and treatment for it is very similar to that in humans (with lots of cautions to never warm a suspected area too fast.)
But of course, it’s much harder if it occurs in dogs to know exactly what is going on. Dogs, Maggie included, usually pick their paws up when they start “burning,” and I always take them back into the house as soon as I see that happening. But Skip? “Nope, he suggested by his behavior. “I’m good!” We had taken several walks when it was close to zero, and both dogs seemed comfortable, so I continued up the hill for our usual walk.
It wasn’t until evening, when we were playing the “dremel = chicken” game, when I noticed areas on Skip’s paws that were strangely colored. Not black, not white, but sort of toasty colored. Maggie too had a few areas on her paw pads that were lighter than expected. Eeeeps. Uh oh, have they been frostbitten? I did the obvious: called my vet, went online, etc etc etc.
Here is one of Skip’s paws the next day:
Was this a sign of mild frostbite or frost nip? Hmm, I was pretty sure Skip’s paw pads were all black. My vet told me to watch for blisters. They are a sign of true frostbite and clear tissue damage. The good news is that I’ve seen no sign of any blisters on the dog’s pads. Pain is another symptom, and that is a harder call. Skip is problematically stoic, but there was one paw that seemed more sensitive than others. Meaningful? Argh, hard to know. Maggie is more of a princess, but she’s not crazy about her paws being handled much anyway, even though we’ve been working hard on it. So, no signs of extreme pain, but tough to know if there is some discomfort. In addition, were the pads a bit swollen? One pad in particular seemed a bit squishy. Hmmm.
But, good, no blisters. At least no visible ones. So I figured I’m probably dealing with either frostnip or superficial frostbite. Now what? Clearly I have to protect the dog’s paws from the cold (it was still bitter cold, highs well below 10 degrees F), but how?
First, I needed to keep the areas well moisturized while they healed. The Musher’s Secret that I had on order when I wrote last week finally came, and I used that on their paws before going outside for pee breaks of just 15-20 seconds. (I am blessed with dogs who pee on cue. Whew.) Musher’s Secret does not protect paws from the cold; rather it’s a way to keep the pads moisturized and prevent cracking and ice balls if out longer. I also read about using Udder Balm to moisturize the pads, and luckily, because we used to raise market lambs, I still had some in the cabinet. It’s gooey and sticky and the last thing you want on your carpet, so I gently massage it into the dog’s pads twice a day. Afterward I put them into their crates, already supplied with a towel. I still get it on my pants and the floor sometimes, but those are all washable, so who cares?
Now I needed to figure out how to take the dogs out for longer when it was still cold while their paws healed. At this point, I still had no good idea of how badly the pads were injured–most advice is about dealing with blisters and severely damaged tissue. But what about the grey area between frostnip and frost bite? Luckily, I know two wonderful people who live in cold climates, and who have experience with sled dogs and what’s needed to protect paws in extreme cold. Melissa McCue-McGrath, reminded me that deep snow (which we have a lot of) is a good insulator, and that paws would get colder standing on hard snow or ice, rather than moving around in snow. “Keep them moving” if you can. Okay, that helps. We also talked about paw protection, which began the SEARCH FOR DOG BOOTIES. (I capitalized that because, yes, I am yelling, because trying to find dog boots of the right size at the end of winter in a pandemic when everything is sold out and delivery times are whacked is, uh, a bit of a thing.)
Here’s are a few things I’ve learned about dog boots: (Please add your own experiences, I’m still on a learning curve here.) First, boots are hard to keep on. The best product for keeping boots on your dog’s paws seems to be Pawz. Paws are basically balloons for your dog’s feet. They are great for protecting your dog’s paws from salt and toxic stuff that gets put onto roads and sidewalks. They, however, do little or nothing to keep paws with damaged blood vessels warm or to prevent dog’s paws from frost bite. But they were better than nothing so I looked everywhere for them, and finally found some in a size possibly too small (Medium, when Skip needs Large, his paws measuring 3.25 and 3.50 inches long). When they arrived they indeed were too small, but I found that if I cut off just the top, they would stay on.
It took awhile of experimenting, not to mention keeping the dogs inside as much as possible, but I finally came up with a plan that has worked very well. Melissa suggested putting children’s socks on the dog’s paws before the booties, which would provide some warmth. After brainstorming with her, and looking for some kind of a sock equivalent, I came up with a good solution: Sheep’s wool under the dog’s pads for insulation (and the lanolin in the wool even moisturizes!), wrapped in vet wrap, all covered with Pawz booties. Voila! Here’s the result:
However, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to put all this together, and obviously I need to get actual dog boots that are easier to put on and off. Friend Jenny Glen (a great sheepdog handler who also uses sleds to exercise her Border Collies in winter), uses Cordura boots, which are inexpensive and have the advantage of being sold one at a time. If you lose one you don’t have to replace the entire set.
Melissa, who grew up in a sled dog family, suggested Mountain Ridge as a place with great boots, which also can be ordered separately. I’ve ordered some, but they haven’t arrived yet. When they do, I’ll let you know. (And will go back and update this post.) She also suggested Muttlux, which I ordered and should arrive any day. But again, I couldn’t find the size I needed, so ordered Medium instead of Large. We’ll see.
Another dear friend, drove out across town on a frigid day to deliver the boots he’s used for his hunting dog. He admitted that they were tiresome to put on and filled with snow if the snow was deep, so, grateful though I am, I passed on using them. But thank you Peter; only a true friend would drive across town in zero degree weather.
Will Skip need boots for years to come, because once an area has been damaged, it is more susceptible to that happening in the future? I know from experience, that a frostbitten finger of mine turned white at the drop of a hat (or the thermometer, I should say) for decades afterward. Maggie’s paws were nothing like Skips, I would classify them as possibly ‘nipped’ and no more. But still, one pad has a crack in it and I’ve been slathering it with Udder Balm twice a day and putting on Musher’s Secret before we go out, even when it’s balmy. (Balmy is anything over 20 degrees, feels like swim suit weather.)
But, here’s the kicker: Were Skip’s paws ever really frostbitten? I assume they had, because “light areas on paw pads” are one of the diagnostic conditions. And I thought that Skip’s pads were all black. But, I went back and looked at earlier photos, and darn if I couldn’t see some areas of light when you could see the bottom of his paws. So I went back online, and found that there are many reasons why black paw pads might turn light, none of them good. And many dogs have paw pads that never turn black.
Holy moly dog lovers, have I been doing all this for nothing? Ha! Could be, could not . . . So that’s where I am now, unsure, after all this, if the dog’s did get frostnip or frost bite, and unsure if Skip especially has kind of medical condition or just plain old pink paw pads. Holy dog boots, batman. Well, good grief, I sure have learned a lot about paws and keeping them safe in winter. I have discovered I knew less about my own dog’s paws than I thought, and that I’d better start paying more attention to their pads. (This from the woman who looks at their paws daily while conditioning them to accept the dremel nail grinder. Remember the famous video of how much we miss about X when we’re looking at Y?) I’ll keep you posted about where we go from here.
Here’s the good news (sort of): I’ve discovered that Maggie has some cracks in her paw pads, some of them look border-line serious. At the moment she’s in her crate, with her pads slathered with Udder Balm. (Which she hates by the way, although Musher’s Secret doesn’t bother her in the least. Skip doesn’t like it either. No idea why!) But I’m glad I’ve caught it before it got worse. Later today I’ll take photos of her paws too, got to get them on record!
In summary: Lessons Learned, for those of you who’ve stayed with this, even if you live where it’s warm most of the time. (“Most of the time” being a pretty useless phrase now.)
First, and not obviously, do you know EXACTLY what the bottom of your dog’s paws look like? I’ve gone crazy trying to figure out if all of Skip’s pads were black or if any areas were light to begin with. You think you know, but I’m here to say you might not. Don’t trust your memory, take photos! We were sure Skip’s paw pads were solid black when we got him, but I’ve found a photo that showed an area of one pad that is clearly much lighter. Were they all black when we got him in Feb of 2020, but one got frost nipped and I didn’t know it? If I had photographs there would be no mystery.
Second, have some kind of pad moisturizer on hand. I know dozens of farmers who wouldn’t live without Udder Balm for their own bodies (jokes welcome), so you might appreciate it as much as your dog.
Third, check your dog’s paw pads often. If you live in the city or suburbs, be sure to clean your dog’s paws of salt, etc, and keep them moisturized. If it’s salty and nasty, invest in some Pawz.
Fourth, if you live where it’s reliably bitter cold, it won’t hurt to have some good boots on hand. Yeah, at least I’ll be well equipped in the future when all the boots I’ve ordered finally arrive.
The one last thing I’ll say here is that I’ve been trying to find an expert who can tell me why the paw pads of dog’s go from thick black to very lighy when they are nipped for frostbitten. I can easily see why our skin turns from whitish (less blood blow), but where does the melanin go from a dog’s paws? Is the black melanin anyway, or something else? I have some inquiries out to vets who work with sled dogs, but vets are slammed now, so I haven’t heard from them. If I do I’ll update this and mention it in subsequent posts. I’ll also repost this next fall, for obvious reasons. Please chime in if you’ve had experience with bitter cold + dog paws + nips and bites of the frosty kind. Or not having a clue if your dog has been frostbitten, or not. Sigh.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Not too much in this section here, running out of energy, but as I said above. It’s been pretty much about the paws here. However, we also have a welcome break in the weather, which is more welcome than I can say. I love of living in the north, I really do, but there just comes a time when enough is enough, and that’s where most of us up here are now. We’re done, thank you. Thank you very much. Between the deep snow and the bitter cold, and the pandemic restrictions, it’s time for a change. I’m happy to say we’re getting it, temperature-wise anyway, it’s getting up to the mid-30’s today! That’s soooo toasty!
Here’s Skip learning that having balloons on your paws isn’t too bad at all:
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I baked a chocolate-chocolate cake (baker’s chocolate and cocoa powder) for Jim and I.
I took this on a walk several weeks ago, when it was, uh, maybe 15 degrees or so? Cold but not brutal for those of us who live up here. I promise you that I did not mess with the color; the sky really really was that blue.
I will end by saying that I have lots more photos I wanted to add, but because the goddess of the internet knows that I’m tired and the dogs need to go out, she is refusing to transfer my photos from my phone to my laptop or email.
And tell us your paw stories! Don’t hesitate to laugh at my angst over my dog’s paws, and my complete lack of clarity of their condition. (Ever got lost in the weeds and now wonder if you were in the wrong pond?) I’ll be laughing myself even more after I have some cake.