Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are conditions that are dangerous to most animals. This includes humans and, of course, dogs. You have probably heard that dogs are at risk for heatstroke when they are in hot temperatures. The fact is, they are even more at risk than people. Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent heatstroke and keep your dog safe.
What is Heatstroke?
Heatstroke is a condition that is caused by an elevation in body temperature called hyperthermia. This body temperature increase occurs as a response to a trigger such as inflammation in the body or a hot environment. When a dog is exposed to high temperatures, heat stroke or heat exhaustion can result. Heatstroke is a very serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Once the signs of heatstroke are detected, there is little time before serious damage or even death can occur.
Why is Heat So Dangerous to Dogs?
Dogs do not sweat through their skin like humans. They will sweat small amounts through their footpads and nose, but this is not enough to release excess body heat. Dogs primarily release heat by panting, a method that exchanges hot and cool air. Unfortunately, this is not a very effective or efficient process, especially when the body temperature is extremely high.
If a dog cannot expel heat, his internal body temperature begins to rise. Damage to the body’s cellular system and organs may become irreversible once the dog’s temperature reaches 106°. Unfortunately, too many dogs succumb to heat stroke when it could have been avoided. Learn how to recognize the signs of heat stroke and prevent it from happening to your dog.
Signs of Heatstroke in Dogs
Heat exhaustion precedes heat stroke. Early signs of heat exhaustion may be subtle. Look for increased panting, lethargy, and failure to follow commands he usually knows. A dog with heat exhaustion may refuse to drink water despite being obviously warm. Without attention, this can easily turn into heat stroke. The following signs may indicate heatstroke in a dog:
- Increased rectal temperature (over 104° requires action, over 105° is an emergency)
- Vigorous panting
- Dizziness or disorientation
- Dark red gums
- Tacky or dry mucous membranes (specifically the gums)
- Thick saliva
- Lying down and unwilling (or unable) to get up
- Collapse and/or loss of consciousness
What to Do if You Suspect Heatstroke
If you have even the slightest suspicion that your dog is suffering from heat stroke or heat exhaustion, you must take immediate action. If your dog is showing early signs, move him to a cool area and offer fresh water to drink. Contact your vet as soon as possible for advice about the steps you need to take next.
If your dog is showing multiple signs of heat stroke, it is best to head straight to the nearest open veterinary hospital. If you have someone to help you, then one of you should attempt cooling methods while the other drives.
How to Safely Cool Down Your Dog
It’s important to carefully lower your dog’s body temperature. Rapid cooling can cause even more problems.
- First, move your dog out of the heat and into a cool, shady area that is well-ventilated.
- Offer your dog cool water, but do not force water into your dog’s mouth. Try not to let your dog drink excessive amounts at a time or he may start vomiting.
- Take your dog’s temperature rectally. Continue to recheck it ever five minutes to prevent overcooling. Do not take the following steps if your dog’s temperature is under 104°F.
- Begin cooling your dog’s body using cool but not extremely cold water. You may place wet rags or washcloths on the footpads, around the head, on the abdomen, and in the armpits. Replace the cool towels frequently as they warm up. Avoid fully covering the body with wet towels as it may trap in heat. You can use a fan to help provide cool air.
- DO NOT use ice or ice water. Extreme cold can cause blood vessels to constrict, preventing the body’s core from cooling and actually causing the internal temperature to rise further. Over-cooling can also cause hypothermia (low body temperature) leading to a host of new problems.
- When the body temperature reaches 103.9°F, stop cooling. At this point, your dog’s body should continue cooling on its own. If you keep trying to cool your dog, you risk hyperthermia.
- Visit a veterinarian as soon as possible, even if your dog seems better. Internal damage might not be obvious to the naked eye, so an examination is necessary. Further testing may be recommended to assess damage.
There’s no doubt that heatstroke is a life-threatening condition. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent heatstroke from happening in the first place.
- NEVER leave your dog alone in the car on a warm or sunny day, even if the windows are wide open. The inside of the car acts like an oven in the sun and heat. Temperatures can rise to dangerously high levels in a matter of minutes, even if the weather outside is not that hot.
- Avoid vigorous exercise on warm days. When outside, opt for shady areas.
- Keep fresh cool water available to your dog at all times.
- Remember that certain types of dogs are more sensitive to heat, especially obese dogs and brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds, like Pugs and Bulldogs. Use extreme caution when these dogs are exposed to heat.
Some dogs can recover fully from heatstroke if it is caught early enough. Others suffer permanent organ damage and require lifelong treatment. Sadly, many dogs do not survive heat stroke. Prevention is the key to keeping your dog safe during warmer weather.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.