Everybody loves a hot sunny day. Our dogs are no different! Going for walks, playing in the garden, going to the beach, lazing around in the sun or even a road trip becomes a ‘must do’ for a well spent day out. However, when temperatures rise, so does the danger of heat stroke in dogs.
What is heat stroke?
Heat stroke is a life threatening condition resulting from inadequate heat loss. It happens due to exposure to hot temperatures at a faster rate than the body can dissipate heat. If not dealt with immediately, it can cause permanent damage to your dog’s organs and brain, and may result in death.
Dogs and humans have developed a very different way of dealing with heat loss. Whilst humans are extremely efficient at losing heat through their skin by sweating (water is a very good conductor for heat loss) a dog’s ability to do this is very limited as they only have sweat glands in the nose and paw pads. This predisposes them to overheat when temperatures rise. Therefore panting becomes the most important way for dogs to lose heat in warm environments.
How can dogs get Heat Stroke?
The classical example of a dog with heat stroke is a dog locked in a hot car. This can happen even on moderately warm days. Temperatures inside a car exposed to sunlight may exceed 48ºC in less than 20 minutes, even when outside temperatures are less than 23ºC.
However, dogs can also get heat stroke in many other ways: from being in warm environments with poor ventilation, to long walks or excessive play in the hot weather. Dogs with certain health conditions (heart and respiratory diseases or obesity), breeds with short muzzles (pugs, bulldogs, etc.), large breeds, dogs with thick coats, and very young and old dogs can be more susceptible to suffer from heat stroke
Recognising Heat stroke:
It is important to recognise heat stroke as soon as possible to avoid damage to internal organs. Initial signs include:
- Excessive or loud panting
- Excessive drooling and thick saliva
- Drinking more water than normal
- Getting tired quickly from play
- Searching for cool areas
- Lying flat on a cool surface (at this stage the dog is still relatively bright)
- Red tongue, pale gums
- Increased heart rate
If not immediately addressed these then progress to advanced signs:
- Increased difficulty breathing
- Gums that turn bright red, then blue or purple
- Wobbly gait
- Depression, weakness or fatigue
- Disorientation or dizziness
In the final stages heat stroke can cause:
- Cardiac arrest
What to do if you suspect your dog is suffering from Heat Stroke?
Heat stroke is a veterinary emergency! If you suspect your dog is suffering from heat stroke call a veterinary surgery immediately. They will assess what stage your dog might be and if emergency veterinary treatment is required. This could include hospitalization, fluid therapy, enemas, gastric lavage, tests to assess if there are any signs of organ failure and dealing with potential secondary problems. The veterinary team will also give you advice on what next steps to take.
Meanwhile you should:
- Move your dog to a cool, shaded and preferably well ventilated area.
- Make sure he has got access to small amounts of cool water to drink.
- Rinse your dog with cool (not cold) water. DO NOT submerge him in cold water as this may make your dog go into shock and collapse. You can use a low pressure hose, cover him in wet towels (for short periods only as the towels may trap the heat) or use a sponge or sprinkler with cool water.
- The use a fan or air conditioning unit will help cool your dog, especially if he is already wet.
- While you do this procedure, if possible, check the rectal temperature every 5 minutes. Dog’s rectal temperatures normally vary between 38-39ºC (100.5-102ºF).
Continue these procedures until your dog has cooled down and take it to the nearest veterinary centre. Be aware that travelling in hot weather before the dog has cooled down may further worsen the condition. Each case is unique so follow the instructions of the veterinarian on when is safe to transport him.
How to prevent heat stroke:
- Be aware of predisposing causes such as heart disease, obesity, breathing problems, very young/older dogs and predisposed breeds. Make sure these dogs are kept cool and DO NOT exercise them in the hot weather.
- Provide access to water, shade and good ventilation at all times.
- Do not leave your dog in a parked car even in moderately warm weather, even if in the shade. Temperatures inside a car can become fatal in a very short period of time.
- Restrict exercise on a hot day. This includes jogging, playing ball in the garden and similar activities.
- Do not muzzle your dog on hot days. This will cause a restriction on the heat loss by panting.
- Avoid places that can become heat traps.
- Move your dog to a cool area of the house (even if he doesn’t want to).
- Wetting down your dog with cool water or allowing him to swim can help maintain a normal body temperature. Make sure that if he is swimming it is safe to do so and under supervision.
Ricardo Sa, MRCVS