Urgent Care

What You Should Know About Heat Stroke In Dogs

heat stroke in dogs

As a Veterinarian in Florida, I have treated hundreds of dogs for heat stroke. With an average temperature of 87℉ during the summer months, many dogs become overheated while on a walk outside or playing at the park for an extended period of time. Frantic owners would come into my ER with a collapsed dog, overheated and panting heavily, not completely understanding what was happening to their dog. My goal with this post is to explain what heat stroke is, discuss common signs seen in heatstroke as well as treatment, and also how to prevent it from happening to your dog.

Let’s get started.

What Is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a serious heat-related issue that occurs when a dog’s system is unable to regulate its temperature. Due to the failure of the body’s cooling mechanism, their temperature rises rapidly and the body becomes overheated. Although it is more common in warmer months of the year, this condition can be seen in places that are warm all year round. 

Humans can regulate our body temperature by sweating, which helps us cool off. Dogs use panting as a way to eliminate body heat. If the environment is too warm and panting alone cannot regulate the temperature, a dog is at risk of hyperthermia or elevated body temperature.

The normal body temperature of dogs is 100℉ to 102.5℉. Any time the body temperature rises above 105℉, this is a true emergency. 

Reasons for an elevated body temperature include strenuous exercise, extremely warm weather, or being left in a car. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, hundreds of pets die every year from heat stroke after being left in a hot vehicle.

The effects of heatstroke are debilitating and immediate medical intervention is needed for the dog to survive. 

Common Signs Seen Among Dogs Suffering From Heat Stroke Are:

Heavy Panting

The most common sign of heat stroke, heavy panting helps a dog cool down when their temperature becomes elevated. Pet owners become alarmed because they usually have never seen their pet pant so hard before.

Dogs do not sweat like you and I, but they can sweat mainly through glands in their paw pads. Panting is the main way for a dog to cool themselves down, so if you notice that your dog is panting for a prolonged period after a walk outside or being in a warm environment, that is definitely cause for concern.

Excess Salivation

If you see that your dog is drooling excessively, this can mean that their body is actively trying to prevent them from overheating. When a dog drools, evaporation of saliva pulls heat away from the body. You may notice that fur on their chin, chest, and front paws are soaked with saliva.

Lethargy and Weakness

Many owners will say that once their dog started to get overheated, it seemed like they refused to walk or even move. It’s not a true refusal, their body is becoming weak from hyperthermia. Also, their blood sugar levels can drop, causing overall weakness. Be sure to watch for stumbling or even collapse, as these are serious signs of overheating.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

When a dog’s temperature starts to climb, the cells of the small intestines can become damaged, causing the lining of the gut to slough. You will notice vomiting and diarrhea that may or may not have blood present. If you notice these symptoms, seek veterinary care right away.

Altered Mental State

As a dog is experiencing heat stroke, their mental state can change. They may seem confused or disoriented, or start stumbling or walking as if they are drunk. They may become unresponsive or even have seizures. Oftentimes this occurs because there is thermal injury to brain cells, or their blood sugar levels are very low (as mentioned above). At this time, medical intervention is necessary for your dog to have a chance at surviving.

Advanced signs of Heat Stroke

While the symptoms listed above certainly warrant a trip to the vet, there are more concerning signs that you may see that indicate later stages of heatstroke, including:

  • Bloody urine
  • Blood in vomiting and diarrhea
  • Bruising on the skin
  • Labored breathing or respiratory distress
  • Seizures
  • Collapse

These symptoms can be life-threatening and require immediate medical intervention.

Predisposing Factors Leading To Heat Stroke

Numerous reasons lead to heat strokes in dogs. These factors are more commonly environmental than anything else.  However, some pets might have an increased risk due to their breed and existing medical conditions.

Contributing environmental conditions might be:

·     High humidity and high temperature

·     Lack of ventilation

·     No access to shade

·     Excessive exercise

·     No access to water 

·     Pets left in a vehicle 

What Happens To A Dog’s Body During Heat Stroke?

Let’s break down what exactly is happening to your pup’s body when they have heatstroke.

When a dog’s body temperature starts rising (going above 106℉), their vital organs are put under extreme stress. Shock can occur due to a decrease in circulating blood volume, the lining of the intestines will bleed and eventually slough, liver and kidney function will deteriorate and the brain can swell. 

All of these things can happen within just a few hours of a dog becoming overheated. That is why it is very important to get a dog to the vet as soon as any abnormal symptoms are noticed.

The effects of heat are devastating and need immediate attention as every second makes a significant difference on whether or not your dog will survive.

heat stroke in dogs

Treatment for Heat Stroke

Once you have arrived at a veterinary hospital with your pup, a doctor will perform a physical exam and get some history from you (as to what is going on before they start showing symptoms) and emergency treatment is discussed, then initiated by a veterinary health care team. 

Blood samples are taken to check for organ dysfunction and clotting times, and can help guide treatment.

Treatment for heat stroke, which can be long, and complex, may warrant a stay at the clinic depending on your dog’s condition. Treatment may involve:

  • Cooling therapy – tepid water is gently sprayed over your dog under the air of a fan to help them cool down
  • Intravenous fluids to correct dehydration
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Symptomatic treatment of vomiting and diarrhea
  • Antibiotics to help prevent any secondary infection
  • Plasma transfusion to assist with clotting issues
  • Anesthesia and airway intubation for dogs that are having difficulty breathing or maintaining normal oxygen levels

Dogs are kept under observation in the intensive care unit and their progress is monitored while symptomatic treatment is continued. 

Every dog suffering from heat stroke may not necessarily need all of the interventions and treatments needed above. Each dog’s situation will be different, and treatment is guided by the results of the tests run by the veterinary healthcare team.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that needs immediate medical intervention if you want to increase the chances of survival for your pet. 

What Breeds Are More At Risk Of Heat Stroke?

While all dogs can be at risk of heat stroke, some breeds are more prone to this condition than others. These include brachycephalic breeds, also known as flat-faced and short-nosed animals. They have smaller and narrower nostrils, smaller airways, and long soft palates, which contribute to the inability of the animals to cool themselves well. These breeds include:

  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Pug

Non-brachycephalic breeds include:

  • Chow Chow
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Greyhound
  • Golden Retriever

I also want to mention other factors that make a dog more at risk for heat stroke:

  • Obesity
  • Older in age
  • Long hair coat
  • Living in a warm climate
  • Underlying medical issues

What Should Be Done If You Think Your Dog Has Heat Stroke?

You need to act fast, as the more time goes by, the sicker your pet may become. Below is a list of things you should do if you suspect your dog is overheated.

  • Remove your pet from the hot environment.
  • Call your Veterinarian and let them know that you are on the way.
  • Discontinue any activity or exercise they were doing.
  • Offer access to water but do NOT force your pup to drink.
  • You can run lukewarm (NOT COLD) water over your pet to help start the cooling process. Using cold water on your pet will actually make things worse by causing their blood vessels to constrict and lead them closer to shock.
  • Make sure the vehicle that is transporting your dog has air conditioning and that it is on.

Getting to your Veterinarian as safely as possible is the goal because heat stroke can be deadly if not treated in time.

How Can You Prevent Heat Stroke?

As a dog owner, it is good to be vigilant and well-informed about any temperature changes that your dog might not be able to tolerate. Take necessary measures to prevent heatstroke, especially if you live in an area where the temperature is hot and dry. 

While outdoors, make sure your dog has access to plenty of water and shade, especially if you are in an area of heat and warmth.

Use a harness instead of a collar as they can put pressure on the neck and make your dog uncomfortable and hard for it to breathe.

Consider shaving your dog’s fur if your animal has a heavy thick hair coat.

Overweight dogs find it hard to cool themselves, so dog owners should be vigilant about keeping their dogs fit and at a healthy weight.

Ensure that the place you are keeping your dog in is well-ventilated.

During car rides, make sure to roll down windows and never leave your dog in a closed car. 

Avoid excess exercise during hot days.

Keep your dog well hydrated.

By now you should know what the most common signs of heat stroke are, what to do if you see these signs, and also what you can do to prevent your dog from becoming overheated. With this information, you can focus on enjoying your pet and keeping them safe when it is warm outside.

For the love of pets,

Dr. Gina

Check out my blog post on Pet Emergencies and see what you need to know!

References:

  1. COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY: “Pet Health: Protect your dog from heat exhaustion and heat stroke during summer months.”

2. The Humane Society of the United States: “Keep pets safe in the heat.”

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Dr. Georgina Ushi is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctorate from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2009. She currently works in the Tampa Bay area, providing compassionate care to dogs and cats. Alongside her clinical work, Dr. Ushi consults for pet well-being brands and writes health articles for her blog, Pet Health Love. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge to educate and inspire fellow pet owners. Dr. Ushi’s professional interests include emergency and critical care, wildlife medicine, nutrition, and hospice and palliative care.

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