Heatstroke is serious, it can take hold quickly, and rapidly become fatal. Recognising the symptoms and knowing what to do when you see them is vital, but the real key is taking steps to avoid your dog being put at risk of heatstroke in the first place.
How do dogs keep themselves cool?
Dogs cannot keep cool as effectively as humans. Sweating is a very effective means of temperature regulation for people, however unlike humans, dog’s sweat only from their paw pads and certain areas on their head/face, which does little to cool their overall body.
Dogs mainly cool themselves by panting. When they open their mouth with their tongue hanging out and breathe heavily, water evaporates from their tongue, nasal passages and lungs, helping to lower their body temperature through a process of evaporative cooling. If your dog is panting hard and fast, they are struggling to reduce their body temperature.
What is heatstroke?
Heatstroke occurs when a dog can no longer self-regulate their body’s temperature and their body becomes overheated. It is a very dangerous condition since overly high body temperatures can lead to severe organ and tissue damage and death in a very short period of time, therefore taking steps to avoid it is vital.
What causes it?
Heatstroke can happen as a result of:
a) Dogs being exercised in hot weather when they haven’t had the opportunity to acclimatise to warmer weather conditions. It can take up to 60 days for dogs to acclimatise to significant weather temperature changes. In the UK, temperatures can change very quickly giving dogs no time to acclimatise;
b) Dogs being stuck in hot environments without access to sufficient ventilation and drinking water to keep cool. Typical hot environments are: parked cars, caravans, conservatories, other hot rooms, and gardens / parks with no shade.
Which dogs are most vulnerable to over-heating?
All dogs, including young, fit ones, can suffer with heatstroke if they are exposed to hot temperatures and a lack of cool air and drinking water, however some dogs are at even higher risk:
Brachycephalic (short-muzzled) dogs such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Boxers
Dogs with underlying heart or lung disease
Dogs on certain medications
Dogs who’ve had heatstroke before
What are the symptoms?
You may only observe a couple of signs of over-heating initially, but dogs with heatstroke can deteriorate in a matter of minutes. If you see that your dog is showing any of the following signs of over-heating, call your vet straight away:
Your dog’s body temperature is too high (when measured with a dog-specific rectal thermometer). The normal body temperature for most dogs is between 38.3 to 39.2 degrees Celsius (101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit).
Panting rapidly and heavily
Rapid or irregular heart beat
Excessive drooling / salivation
Dark red or purple gums
Dehydration (darker-than-normal coloured urine, smaller quantities of urine or no urination)
Lethargy / drowsiness
Out of character anxious behaviour
Blood in vomit or stools
Lack of coordination when moving (drunk-looking, wobbly)
What you should do if a dog is showing signs of heatstroke
Move them to a cool, shaded area
Lay them on a cool surface
Pour lots of cool (NOT cold!) water gently all over the dog, in particular focus on their neck, throat, ‘armpits’ and around the groin, until their breathing starts to settle, but don’t continue for so long that they start to get cold and shiver
**Cold or icy water causes problems with blood circulation i.e. ‘shock’, making it harder for heat to be released from the body**
If possible, position a fan to blow cool air across their body
Offer small amounts of cool, clean water to drink, but do not force them to drink
Call a vet as soon as possible for advice on the steps you should take, which may be to get the dog to the veterinary surgery urgently
When transporting a dog with heatstroke to the vets by car, open all of the windows, or if available, put the air-conditioning on
What NOT to do
Do no immerse the dog in cold or icy water
Do not place soaked towels over the body, the towels will insulate the body making the dog hotter even if they towels are soaked in cool water
Do not delay in taking steps to cool the dog down and calling a vet
If you see a dog in a hot car
This is what the RSPCA’s website says:
“Help a dog in a hot car
1. Establish the animal's health and condition. If they're displaying any signs of heatstroke dial 999 immediately [and ask for the police].
2. If the situation becomes critical for the dog and the police are too far away or unable to attend, many people's instinct will be to break into the car to free the dog. If you decide to do this, please be aware that without proper justification, this could be classed as criminal damage and, potentially, you may need to defend your actions in court.
3. Make sure you tell the police what you intend to do and why. Take pictures or videos of the dog and the names and numbers of witnesses to the incident. The law states that you have a lawful excuse to commit damage if you believe that the owner of the property that you damage would consent to the damage if they knew the circumstances (section 5(2)(a) Criminal Damage Act 1971).”
Minimising the risks of heatstroke occurring
NEVER leave dogs in cars, conservatories, outbuildings or caravans – the temperatures in these environments can rise to deadly levels extremely quickly
NEVER leave dogs in outdoor spaces with no shade
In hot weather, exercise your dog at times of the day when the weather is coolest (early in the morning and late in the evening), if it’s warm even at these times, just stay at home, your dog doesn’t need a walk
Keep exercise light even when going out at cooler times of the day, take short slow walks, do not encourage your dog to run around, dogs don’t know when to stop!
Ensure your dog has constant access to a cool room indoors and cool area outdoors
Cool, fresh drinking water should always be available to your dog – you can put ice cubes in their water bowl to help stop the water warming up
Lay cool, damp towels on the floor for your dog to lay on, or purchase a specialist cooling mat and / or cooling coat / vest for your dog to wear (make sure to use cool coats / vests in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, leaving them on for too long can lead to insulating effects which can cause your dog to overheat)
Provide a paddling pool filled with cool water in the garden
Keep your dog at a healthy weight
Some dogs may benefit from having their hair clipped in the summer months
Use dog-safe sunscreen on your dog’s nose, ear-tips and tummy