How to keep your pets safe from hypothermia and frostbite, according to an Iditarod sled-dog veterinarian

How to keep your pets safe from hypothermia and frostbite, according to an Iditarod sled-dog veterinarian

Kakslauttanen husky safari 2

Valtteri Hirvonen

This year marks the 47th running of the historic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.

  • Winter weather in the northeastern US can be dangerous for humans and our pets. Dogs and other domestic animals can get frostbite and hypothermia on their ears, tails, and noses.
  • Some breeds, particularly those with short hair, are more vulnerable than others.
  • In Alaska, dog mushers are currently tracing a historic path for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race. Here's how they keep their sled dogs warm.

In a winter that has already brought a snow squall and polar vortex, Mother Nature has unleashed another wave of snow and cold across the US this week.

Freezing temperatures come with an increased risk of frostbite - a condition in which a person's skin and underlying tissues freeze or, in extreme cases, die - as well as hypothermia.

The tips of our fingers, toes, ear lobes, cheeks, and nose are the most susceptible to frostbite, because the body prioritizes keeping your core and head warm at the cost of everything else. That means blood flow to extremities tends to be redirected when the body is exposed to extreme cold. Less blood flow puts the skin at greater risk of freezing.

Hypothermia occurs when our body loses heat faster than it can produce it. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to heart failure and even death.


Cold temperatures can affect our furry friends in similar ways. Dogs and other domestic animals are just as vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia.

How to spot frostbite and hypothermia in a dog

When Fido goes outside in the cold, the areas farthest from his heart - like the tail, ears, and nose - experience a drop in blood flow similar to the process in humans. This causes tissue damage.

Signs of frostbite on your animal could include pale gray or bluish skin, coldness or brittleness of an affected area, swelling, and blisters, according to Ernest Ward, a vet with the Veterinary Centers of America (VCA).

In fact, some of these signs can take a few days to appear, particularly if the affected area is small or non-weight bearing (like the ears or tip of the tail).

Ward suggested that if you suspect your dog has frostbite or hypothermia, it's best to seek medical attention immediately. In the meantime, he said, wrap your dog's body in warm dry towels or blankets and place hot water bottles wrapped in towels nearby.


It's important not to rub or massage the affected area, and not to use direct dry heat from a heating pad or hair dryer to warm your dog extremities, Ward says.

If dogs spend too much time exposed to extreme cold, their overall body temperatures can drop, which can be fatal. Hypothermic dogs can seem lethargic and stiff, and other signs of hypothermia include shivering, lack of coordination, and low heart rate.

Experts caution against leaving any dog unattended outside for any period of time during extreme weather events like a polar vortex.

Read More: How long you can stay outside in extreme cold before getting frostbite

dog sled

Charlie Riedel/AP

Jonny Mendoza and his dog Subi sled down a snowy hill in Kansas City, Kansas after a winter storm.


Yet a dog's breed can determine its susceptibility to frostbite, according to the American Kennel Club. Short-haired breeds like pugs and French bulldogs are more prone to it than Siberian and Alaskan huskies and malamutes (unsurprisingly).

Huskies and other sled dogs are even known for competing in long races in bitter cold, like the historic 1,000-mile-long Iditarod race, which started on March 3 and is expected to finish next week.

Here are some reasons why these canines are able to beat the deep freeze.

How to keep sled dogs warm in extreme cold

An animal's ability to tolerate cold weather depends on its age, diet, health, and coat density, according to Susan Whiton, a sled-dog veterinarian in Wasilla, Alaska. Whiton has competed in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race from the Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, and her husband has raced in the Iditarod multiple times.

Huskies and malamutes do well in such conditions because they have thick undercoats, she said in an interview with Cattledog Publishing.


"The thick undercoat of the Northern Breeds provides loft, like a fuzzy mohair sweater, and keeps the warmth next to the animal rather than allowing it to escape," Whiton said. These breeds also use their thick fur to keep warm while they sleep, curling up with their tail over their nose to trap extra heat against their bodies.

Husky snow

Lorie Shaull/Flickr/Attribution License

A Siberian husky sled dog curled up in the snow at Birches on the Lake in Long Lake, Minnesota.

"Cold is not a problem when the dogs are running during the race," Whiton said. "Overheating is a bigger problem."

One surprising sign that dogs are not staying warm is the presence of ice on their fur, since that means they're losing enough body heat to melt the snow that's on top of them, Whiton said.

"There are lots of photos of resting sled dogs covered with snow," Whiton said. That is actually a good sign: "They are holding their heat well since the snow is not melted."


She also noted that sled dogs often eat a very different diet than regular pets in order to stay warm.

"The calories in most commercial dog foods come from carbohydrates," she said. But in very cold weather, dogs do better with a higher amount of fat. One study suggested that a sled dog racing the Iditarod needs 10,000 calories a day to meet its metabolic needs.

"The only way to meet that high caloric need is with a diet high in fat calories," Whiton said. But she warned that most pet dogs don't need that many calories and could get very sick from a high-fat diet.

Whiton added that fatty diets helped her dogs' resilience during the Yukon Quest, when her team encountered temperatures of minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit at night and minus 20 degrees during the day.

"It is hard for humans who think 30 degrees Fahrenheit is cold to imagine dogs doing well at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit," Whiton said. "But the dogs do amazingly well if they are acclimated, healthy, fed well, and housed well."


How to keep your dog safe in the cold - no matter where you live

Sometimes, Iditarod dogs need extra help to keep warm. If it's windy, sled dogs can wear nylon and fleece coats to protect the bare areas on their bellies, Whiton said.

The sled dogs also wear booties, but they aren't for preventing frostbite. Instead, they minimize abrasions and the chance of cuts on dogs' feet. Extreme cold makes the snow harsh like sandpaper, according to Whiton. The boots also keep balls of ice from collecting around the dogs' foot pads.

FILE - In this March 3, 2018, file photo, Eagle River, Alaska musher Tom Schonberger's lead dogs trot along Fourth Avenue during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The world's foremost sled dog race kicks off its 47th running this weekend on Saturday, March 2, 2019, as organizers and competitors strive to push past a punishing two years for the image of the sport. Some of the drama has been resolved for Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race. (AP Photo/Michael Dinneen, File)

Associated Press

Dog musher Tom Schonberger's team sprints at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska.

Recreational pet owners can use some of the same techniques to keep their animals safe and warm during winter walks. Urban pets can wear the same type of booties during expeditions into, say, New York's concrete jungle in order to keep their paws ice-free.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) recommends that owners of dogs with short coats (or of any dog that seems bothered by the cold) dress their pet in a warm sweater or coat. This extra layer needs to be dry, though, because wet sweaters can make your dog colder, and damp body parts are even more vulnerable to frostbite.


Ultimately, the AVMF said, consider your pet's individual needs during extreme winter weather. Short-legged dogs' bellies are more likely to come into contact with the icy ground, for example, and older pups may struggle to walk on snow and ice without slipping.

Ward cautioned that dogs with heart disease or diabetes - conditions associated with reduced blood flow to the extremities - are at greater risk for frostbite. The same goes for very young and very old dogs that can't regulate their body temperatures as efficiently.

When in doubt, just shorten your dog's walks in extreme cold. It'll protect both of you from frostbite and hypothermia.