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Know the Risks: Preventing & Treating Heat Stroke

Summer is in full force and it is hot out there! Please remember: while you’re out hiking a trail, schmoozing your neighborhood, or strolling the sands, it’s hot for your dog, too! Because they only have a relatively small number of sweat glands located in their footpads, dogs cannot control their body temperature by sweating as humans do. Their primary way of regulating body temperature is by panting, but when faced with extreme exposure on a hot day, it’s often not enough.

Heat stroke is a term commonly used for hyperthermia or elevated body temperature. Generally speaking, if a pet’s body temperature exceeds 103°F, it is considered abnormal. Body temperatures above 106°F without previous signs of illness are most commonly associated with exposure to excessive external or environmental heat and referred to as heat stroke. The critical temperature where multiple organ failure and impending death occurs is around 107°F to 109°F.

Heat exhaustion in dogs can be an extremely emergent situation. We hear tragic stories about pets being left in poorly ventilated vehicles far too frequently, but your dog can also get overheated being left in a yard too long with inadequate shade or going on too vigorous of exercise during the zenith of the day. Stay on the lookout for:

  • Excessive panting and drooling
  • Dry or sticky gums
  • Abnormal gum color or bruising in gums
  • Lethargy
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures

Dogs with a restricted airway, including flat-faced dogs such as pugs, boxers, and bulldogs, are at greater risk. In these breeds, clinical signs of heat stroke can occur when the outside temperature and humidity are only moderately elevated. In addition, dogs that are muzzled are at greater risk since their ability to pant is restricted. Lastly, any infection causing fever can lead to hyperthermia, as well as seizures or severe muscle spasms which elevate the body temperature due to the increase in muscular activity.

An Immediate Medical Emergency

In the event you suspect heat exhaustion in your pet, immediately find a cooler, shady place. Pour cool – not cold/freezing – water over your dog’s head and body and contact us or an emergency clinic ASAP. Because hyperthermia is an immediate medical emergency, safe, controlled reduction of body temperature is a priority. Ensure a continuous flow of air across the dog to help increase evaporative heat loss until treatment is received.

Although of questionable benefit, rubbing alcohol may be applied to the footpads to dilate pores and increase perspiration. Using ice packs is controversial as they may contribute to reduced blood flow to the skin surface where heat exchange can take place. Intravenous fluids, mild sedation and low-concentration oxygen therapy are also commonly used to treat heat stroke.

The dog’s rectal temperature must be monitored and treatment discontinued once the dog shows signs of recovery or the temperature has fallen to 103ºF. If cooling is not discontinued, then the patient could develop hypothermia (dangerously low body temperatures).

A dog’s outcome depends on how high the body temperature rose, how long the hyperthermia persisted and the pet’s condition prior to the heat stroke. If the body temperature does not become extremely high, most healthy pets will recover quickly if they are treated immediately. However, others may experience permanent organ damage or die at a later date from complications that develop secondarily. In addition, pets that do experience hyperthermia are at greater risk in the future.

This summer, avoid the hottest part of the day when exercising your pet. Always provide access to fresh water, shade and a cool place to lay down, and never confine to a dog house or leave unattended in a car. The temperature in your vehicle can rise much faster than you think and have a dangerous effect on your pets. Unfortunately, leaving the windows cracked does not make a big enough difference; the heat can turn deadly in just a few minutes.