Heat Stroke

Now that summer is upon us, I want to discuss heat stroke.  Heat stroke is when your dog’s core body temperature rises from a normal 100-102 degrees to 106-109 degrees.  Heat stroke is life-threatening, and can cause tissue necrosis, sepsis, and death.  It occurs in hot, humid environments, where dogs don’t have water and/or shade.  More relevant for agility dogs, it can also occur when working a dog in hot and humid conditions.  One especially dangerous place is the car–it gets extremely hot in a car very quickly in the summer.  This chart from the AVMA shows how quickly the temperature in a car can reach critical levels.

Any dog is susceptible to heat stroke, because as a rule, dogs stink at cooling themselves.  They rely on evaporative cooling via panting, which can be inefficient, especially in humid conditions (like the Gulf Coast).  Senior dogs and puppies are not as good at thermoregulating so may be more susceptible.  Obese dogs, as well as brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds, are also predisposed to heat stroke.

Signs of heat stroke include panting, weakness, stumbling or falling over, and collapse.  Vomiting or diarrhea may also occur.  If you are worried about heat stroke, check your dog’s temperature (if you can do it quickly).  Heat stroke is a strong possibility if your dog’s temperature is over 105 degrees.  The biggest problem isn’t how high the temperature gets, but how LONG it stays there, so quickly cooling your dog before seeking immediate medical care is crucial.

Heat stroke is an emergency, and time is of the essence.  To help your dog survive heat stroke, do the following:

1.  Dunk your dog in cool (not freezing/ice) water.  Focus on the feet, belly, chest, and perineal areas.  Ice packs and ice water are not recommended, as they will cause the peripheral vessels in the skin to constrict, and may inhibit cooling.    Using alcohol on the pads is also somewhat controversial–some no longer recommend this practice.

2.  Get your dog in the car, crank up the AC to full blast.  Do not put a wet towel on their backthat may prevent cooling.

3.  Drive to the nearest emergency clinic.

Additional cooling will be performed at the Emergency Clinic.  Your dog may receive IV fluids to help correct dehydration, and bloodwork to determine if he’s having any organ damage or clotting problems.  Whether your dog will need additional therapies will depend on the severity of the incident.

To prevent heat stroke:

  • Exercise your dog in the morning or evening, not in the middle of the day.
  • Make sure your dog has access to water and give him breaks for a drink.
  • Keep your sessions short.
  • Hose off your dog’s belly and chest to help promote cooling.
  • Look into using cool pads and coats.
  • Listen to your dog–if he’s slowing down, laying down, or heading for shade, it’s time for a break.

Take a dip to cool off when playing (photo by Martine Kopka)




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