As the weather warms up, more people will be spending time in the great outdoors, and usually this means that their dogs* will too.
Luckily for us, humans are pretty efficient at cooling down. We are able to sweat through our skin and having opposable thumbs means we can open doors and go back inside into the air conditioning!
Unfortunately, our canine companions aren’t so great at cooling down.
Unlike us, they can’t sweat through their skin when they get hot - the only way they can stay cool is by panting.
This means that hyperthermia, or heat stroke, can occur commonly in our dogs during the summer months.
Basically, heat stroke is a form of non-fever hyperthermia that occurs when the heat-dissipating mechanisms of the body (in dogs, you will recall that that’s only panting) cannot accommodate the excessive external heat.
Dogs with a temperature greater than 41°c, with no signs of infection or inflammation, are considered to be suffering from heat stroke.
Heat stroke is extremely dangerous for your dog, as it can cause multiple organ dysfunction, failure and death.
Clinical signs of Heatstroke
- Panting, especially excessive panting
- High temperature
- Excessive drooling
- Decreased urine production
- Rapid heart rate
- Reddened gums
- Breathing distress
- Wobbly or in-coordinated
- Seizures or muscle tremors
If your dog displays any of these signs, you should be immediately suspicious of heat stroke, especially if it is a hot day, if your dog has been running around excessively or for a long period of time, or if your dog has been unable to find any shade or water.
If your dog does display any of these signs, this is an emergency situation and you should proceed to the closest veterinary hospital immediately.
In the car you should turn the air conditioning on and offer your pet water. Try and keep them as calm as possible on the ride – excitement will exacerbate the hyperthermia.
If you cannot get the veterinarian immediately, then there are a few things you can do to cool your dog down until you can.
What to do if your dog has heatstroke and you can’t get to a vet
Take your dog to a cool area immediately. If you have air conditioning or a fan then it is best to place your dog in front of this. Provide your dog with cool drinking water, but do not force them to drink if they don’t want to.
If you have a thermometer handy, it is a good idea to take your dog’s temperature rectally. This will give you an idea of how hot your dog is. You must then start cooling down your dog by rinsing it in cold water. It is very important that you do not use ice or freezing water as this shock your dog’s body and paradoxically cause them to become even hotter! Normal cold tap water should be sufficient.
Smaller dogs will cool down faster than larger dogs, so knowing their temperature and taking it regularly will help you know if you’re cooling your dog down. You don’t want to cool your dog down too much; so stop cooling your dog when their rectal temperature reaches approximately 38.5°c.
Ideally, you should take your dog to the vet as soon as possible as they will need to assess whether or not there has been any permanent organ damage, or they may even need to provide intense supportive care including oxygen therapy.
How to avoid heatstroke in your pets
- Don’t leave your dog in a car
- Walk your dog at dawn or dusk – do not walk your dog in the middle of the day on hot days
- Always make sure your dog has access to a shady area and LOTS OF COOL DRINKING WATER
- If your dog is a brachycephalic (squashed face) breed such as a pug or bulldog, consider talking to your veterinarian about certain surgeries that can reduce the risk of your dog overheating and improve their ability to breath overall
*Although this article mostly focuses on dogs, hyperthermia can affect other pets including cats, rabbits and guinea pigs too. The principles of treatment are the same, although some cats might not appreciate being wet!