Heatstroke in dogs...it's a killer
Living in Florida, we have learned to adapt to the heat and humidity by wearing light weight clothing, keeping ourselves hydrated to replace the moisture we lose through perspiration, and taking the time to get out of the heat when it becomes uncomfortable. How difficult would it be to adjust to the high temperatures and humidity if you were wearing full winter gear: a coat, hat, gloves and heavy boots? And then, take away your ability to sweat, which allows us to get rid of excess heat through the evaporative process. This describes what our canine companions are struggling with as they play, compete or work in our tropical climate. First, let's make sure our dogs are healthy utilizing the best possible options for foods and then we can take a take a look at how to avoid heatstroke in dogs, by exploring how our dogs deal with the heat and how we can help them cope with high temperatures and humidity. When selecting a dog to add to your family, consider the breed that lives in that climate naturally.
The simple biological fact is that dogs are not particularly good at regulating their body temperature. If a dog can’t get rid of excess heat through their normal mechanisms such as panting or sweating through their foot pads, their body temperature can rise rapidly and quickly with the possibility of heatstroke in dogs and become a medical and life threatening emergency. The dog’s average body temperature ranges between 99.5-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with the average being 101.5 degrees. Heatstroke in dogs is invariably fatal If their temperature rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Age, breed type, physical condition and the environmental temperature all have an impact on a dog’s ability to thermoregulate. Like humans, the very young and the old have less heat tolerance and are therefore at increased risk of heatstroke in dogs. The Brachycephalic breeds (Boxers, Pugs, Pekingese, Shih Tzus, Boston Terriers and other short-nosed breeds) are also more susceptible, as they are more prone to respiratory distress when they try to increase their rate of panting when it’s hot.
First off, dogs (and cats) don’t sweat – at least not for the purpose of cooling down as humans do. Dogs produce “sweat” on areas not covered with fur, such as the nose and paw pads. But these secretions are not sufficient to cool the animal by themselves. This small amount of moisture is intended more to keep a dog’s nose from getting too dry or their foot pads from cracking, and to produce scents to allow recognition by other animals. Thankfully, dogs do have a few other ways to cool themselves and hopefully help them avoid heatstroke.
The primary way that dogs dissipate heat is through panting. However, panting is only effective if they have enough moisture to keep their tongue and the mucosa of their mouth wet. If not, they are only adding to the problem by working the muscles to pant - but not getting the benefit of the heat loss. When your dog is panting to cool off, avoid heatstroke in dogs by LOOKING at their tongue! Is it dripping wet (as it should be) or is it bone dry or only having thin lines of foam across it? This is a sign your pet is too dry to secrete enough water in their saliva to maximize pant-cooling. Giving frequent small drinks to just get their mouth wet can provide immediate relief.
So what can we do to help avoid heatstroke in dogs? We can learn ways to enhance their normal cooling functions. First, keep lots of cool, clean water available for your pets. Placing a few ice cubes in their water bowl can help, but be careful if your pet sees these as a treat. Swallowing an ice cube can spasm the esophagus and could cause discomfort until it melts.
There are a number of ways to avoid heatstroke in dogs. Dogs will often transfer heat conductively by laying on cool surfaces or wetting themselves down, often times rolling in mud as that stays on them longer. Taking gel packs, freezing them and then putting them in their beds under a layer of material will provide a great cool resting place. Having a children’s pool or other water source for them to get wet in, or just occasionally hosing them down is also helpful. And if you go for long walks, in addition to taking along water, you can use a wet T-shirt sliced down the front and put it on your dog as a cool cape. This can easily be kept damp by pouring water on it throughout your walk. Even a wet bandana tied loosely around their neck can provide some much needed relief and help avoid heatstroke in dogs.
Make sure that outside dogs always have access to shade. Avoid concrete or asphalt areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade. On hot days, restrict exercise and don't take your dog jogging with you. Too much exercise when the weather is very hot can be dangerous for both humans and their pets.
If your pet has digestive issues, they often do not want to drink water due to effects of acid reflux in the stomach. In these cases, you can add a small of chicken broth to their water to encourage them to drink more. Be sure to change out the water several times a day, as chicken broth can spoil if left unrefrigerated for an extended period of time. If your pet has heart or kidney issues you will need to limit their salt intake, and you may need to add a sodium-free electrolyte solution to their water. Always consult with your veterinarian regarding what the optimal electrolyte levels should be for your pet in these circumstances.
What your dog eats can also help it cope with warm weather. Cats and dogs are carnivores and their digestive systems were never designed to digest large quantities of grain, which tends to ferment in their GI tracts and cause internal heat to be produced. Pet food that does not contain wheat, corn and soy, can dramatically decrease the internal heat produced from metabolic digestion.
And, what about all that fur you ask? How does that play into heatstroke in dogs? As counter intuitive as it sounds, fur can help an animal cope in warm temperatures to some extent. Fur traps air and actually insulates the body, acting as a thermal regulator to slow down the process of heat absorption and protecting it from sunburn. But there is a limit to the insulating abilities of fur. The fur begins to trap heat rather than fend it off as temperatures and humidity levels rise to Florida summertime levels - making the animal even more uncomfortable.
Dogs with thick coats naturally shed so that they have a lighter coat in the summer. Remember to brush your dog’s fur to remove dead undercoat and bathe them frequently. Clean, brushed fur allows for better air circulation. Depending on your pet’s breed and natural coat, giving your long-haired dog a “summer cut” can help make this more manageable. Just make sure to leave 1-2 inches of fur so as to not disturb the natural cooling process or expose your dog to the risk of sunburn.
Never leave your pet in a parked car -- for any length of time! This is the quickest way to get heatstroke in dogs! Leaving a sunroof or windows cracked open isn't enough. If you do that you have most assuredly consigned your dog to suffer in the equivalent of a car shaped oven. A dog’s body heat and expired air in the dog’s breath – which is normally about 102 degrees and has 100% humidity – will act like a heater inside the enclosed space of a car, making it hotter, more humid and harder for the animal to breathe/pant. Additionally, panting, especially when in distress, is a intense physical activity and as an animal overheats they get stressed and pant even harder, creating more activity that only further raises their temperature and generates even more heat inside the car.
Still not convinced that heatstroke in dogs is easily caused when left in a hot car? Then take a look at the table below, which shows how quickly the temperature rises inside a parked vehicle. When leaving your pet in a parked car while you run into the store for “a few minutes,” you truly are playing Russian roulette with their lives.
While many pets definitely enjoy taking a car ride with their owners, it may be much safer to leave them home during the warmer months of the year, where it is cooler and safer for them. If it is absolutely necessary to take your pet in the car with you, then you may want to try one of these alternatives to leaving the pet unattended in your vehicle:
- Use a drive-thru window to shop or pick-up purchase when available
- Take a friend or family member along to play with the dog outside while you complete your errands
- Shop at pet-friendly establishments where your dog is welcome to accompany you
- Eat at restaurants that have outside tables where your dog can be with you
No matter what precautions you take, it is still important to be aware of the signs of heatstroke in dogs. A dog suffering from heatstroke will display several signs:
- Rapid panting and heartbeat
- Bright red or purple tongue
- Red or pale gums
- Difficulty breathing
- Thick, sticky saliva/profuse salivation
- Hot feeling skin
- Dizziness or lack of coordination
- Vomiting - sometimes with blood
- Reluctance to move
If you see these symptoms, you must act quickly. Get your dog out of the heat and begin gently cooling by wetting it with cool water. Do not use ice to quickly cool your pet down as their body’s thermostat is not working and they may go into hypothermia (too cold). Take a rectal temperature every 5 minutes, if possible. Once the dog’s temperature is down to 103, you can discontinue the cooling process and dry it with towels. It is then important to get your pet to your veterinarian or the closest emergency veterinary clinic as quickly as possible. Your pet can recover from mild heat stroke, but when the body temperature has risen above 106 degrees, your pet must be carefully monitored and administration of intravenous fluids and other supportive measures must be taken to try to prevent organ damage and possible death.
By following these easy guidelines, your pets can stay cool and comfy, avoiding heatstroke in dogs, even when the dog days of summer set in.
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by Dr. Trish Kallenbach DVM, CVCP, VA, LMT