Dogs in particular just can’t handle high temperatures the way humans can. They cool themselves through rapid breathing to exchange warm air for cool air – but when the air temperature is similar to body temperature, cooling by rapid breathing doesn’t do the job very well. Even 80-degree air temperatures can be dangerous, especially if it’s humid or there’s direct sun.
Heatstroke is an extreme emergency that requires immediate treatment; most people don’t realize just how fast heatstroke can occur in dogs and cats, or that it is often fatal. If you ever discover your pet showing signs of overheating, get him to the nearest animal hospital immediately.
The causes of heat stroke
Leaving a pet alone in a car is very risky, and is the most common cause of heatstroke in animals. It only takes a few minutes for the internal heat of the vehicle to climb forty degrees above the outside air temperature, especially in direct sunlight. In that situation, even Fido’s own body heat will act like a heater, amplifying the heat inside the enclosed space and helping to drive up the temperature even more. Leaving windows open at the top helps if there is a breeze, but even that won’t help him for very long on a hot day.
Other common situations that can increase the risk of heatstroke in dogs
- Being confined on a concrete run or chained without shade in hot weather.
- Being a short-nosed breed like a Bulldog or Pug, or a thick-coated cold weather breed such as a Malamute or a Bernese Mountain Dog.
- Being muzzled while put under a dryer (this can happen in a grooming parlor).
- Suffering from airway disease or any condition that impairs breathing.
- Being brought to outdoor events like county fairs or flea markets on very hot days.
The signs of heat stroke
Heatstroke begins with rapid, frantic, raspy breathing; the saliva is thick, and the gums will appear pale and dry. The dog may vomit. If the condition goes unchecked, he quickly becomes weak and unsteady on his feet and will begin to stagger. He’ll have diarrhea that may be bloody; very shortly thereafter, coma and death will follow.
Emergency measures must begin at once. Mild cases can be treated by moving Fido to a cooler surrounding, such as an air-conditioned building or car, and giving him cold water to drink. If you discover your overheated pet in a state where he’s highly agitated, wide-eyed and panting uncontrollably, head for the nearest animal hospital right away with the air conditioning at full blast. If this isn’t possible, get the dog to a cool place and immediately begin treatment for heatstroke.
Cool Fido by immersion in a tub of cold water. If this is impossible, hose him down with a garden hose, making sure his underbelly and inside legs are thoroughly wet. Run the cool water over his tongue and mouth. Take a rectal temperature if possible, to know when to stop the cooling procedure; a safe temperature is about 103 degrees. (102 degrees is the dog’s normal body temperature.) A small dog will cool down much faster than a large dog. Once the temperature gets to 103 or 104 degrees don’t cool him any further, as the dog’s body temperature will continue to drop a bit on its own. Take your wet and miserable pet, and seek veterinary attention as soon as you possibly can. Just because his temperature’s down doesn’t mean that Fido’s out of the woods; heatstroke often kills.
If you are near an animal hospital, go there right away. Once there, they may administer oxygen, cortisone, and dextrose to help offset the heat’s traumatic effects on the cells of Fido’s body. The staff can also provide more efficient cooling measures and monitor the dog’s temperature and heart rate, as well as administer intravenous fluids and anticoagulants if necessary.
- Never leave any dog unattended in a car on a hot day
- Never expose dogs with airway disease or impaired breathing to prolonged heat
- Restrict exercise during the heat of the day in summer
- Crate a dog only in an open wire cage
- Provide shade and plenty of cool water to dogs living in outdoor runs