Pete the Vet: How to spot the signs of heat stroke in dogs

We all know the dangers of leaving dogs in a warm car but that isn't the only cause of heat stroke
Pete the Vet: How to spot the signs of heat stroke in dogs

Dogs with a dark coat can be at increased risk

As we head towards July and August, ambient temperatures in Ireland are reaching their seasonal peaks. Our temperate climate avoids the hot, humid conditions of the mid-summer in many other countries, but it’s still warm enough to be risky to dogs. Every year, dozens of dogs in Ireland die from heat stroke.

In most cases, these deaths are preventable. There are two issues: people often don’t realise the dangers involved in specific situations, and they don’t recognise the signs of heat stroke soon enough to be able to save their pets’ lives.

That said, these days, most people do know about the high risk of leaving a dog in a car on a warm day. The windows of a car act like greenhouse glass, and the temperature inside a parked car rapidly rockets.

Dogs lose heat in two main ways: by heat radiating from their body into the environment, and by panting, with heat dissipating from the moist surface of their tongue as water evaporates into the air. In a hot car, the temperature of the air around the dog is too warm to allow heat to radiate from their body in sufficient quantities, and they simply cannot pant fast enough to lose enough heat from their tongue. Within minutes, a dog’s temperature can rise above normal, and if rapid action is not taken, their body temperature can quickly reach unsurvivable levels.

The signs of heat stroke in a car start with excessive panting: often affected animals have a fearfully anxious expression as if they realise that despite full-on panting, they are still unable to cool down enough to be comfortable.

If they are not rescued from this situation, when the brain gets too hot, seizures develop, and affected dogs then fall unconscious, entering a comatose state before passing away.

The sad news is that even if dogs are rescued from an overheated car, they cannot always be saved: heat damage to the liver, kidneys and digestive system often leads to severe gastrointestinal signs the following day. Even at this late stage, some dogs don’t pull through.

The main message is that dogs should not be left in cars on their own. Even if the sun is not out, even if you think you’ll only be ten minutes, there’s a risk. The sun may come out, or you may be unexpectedly delayed. It’s just too dangerous to take those chances.

Cars are not the only enclosed spaces that can cause problems in warm weather: other risky locations include sun rooms and conservatories at home, yards and gardens without shade, and even enclosed sheds and outhouses. Before leaving a dog unattended, you need to be sure that their surroundings are certain to remain cool enough for comfort. And in the summertime, plenty of fresh water always needs to be easily accessible. Panting is an effective heat losing mechanism, but if dogs cannot keep drinking, they can rapidly become dehydrated, which will stop panting from working successfully to keep them cool.

It’s a different heat stroke scenario that remains largely unrecognised, so please everyone, read this, remember it, and tell your friends. The situation is common: it’s when a dog is taken out for a walk on a warm day. There are three heat-creating hazards that combine to cause the crisis.

• Their body absorbs heat passively from the high summer ambient temperature.

• If the sun is shining, heat is absorbed through the dog’s skin (dark-furred dogs are more at risk, because the sunlight is absorbed, rather than reflected as it is with white-furred animals).

• When a dog exercises, the muscles generate significant quantities of heat. So they are generating heat on the inside, as well as absorbing heat from the outside.

The situation is exacerbated because fresh water is often not made available for a dog while out on a walk. Again, dehydration kicks in, and panting is not as effective as it should be.

The body temperature rapidly increases, and to add to the crisis, the dog’s owner often has no idea about what is going on.

Last summer, I had a phone call from a friend: they had taken their German Shepherd for a long hill walk on a warm sunny day. The dog had just flopped down, and was refusing to walk, and was looking distressed. What should they do? I asked a few questions. Yes, the dog was panting continually. Yes, the dog’s gums felt hot and dry. And no, they had not brought any water for the dog to drink. This dog was showing all the signs of heat stroke: this was a life threatening situation.

They told me that there was a small lake half a mile away. I told them to pick up the dog, difficult as that might be, and carry him there as rapidly as possible. When they got there, they were to put the dog in the shallows, and douse him with water. I stressed the need to avoid deep water and highlighted the danger of chilling him too rapidly: gentle cooling is the idea. They called me back an hour later: they had done as I said, and within twenty minutes, the dog had stopped panting, and was now happy to walk home. Even then, I suggested that they take their dog to the vet: follow up checks are important.

I have no doubt that many dogs don’t survive such situations, simply because their owners don’t realise that heat stroke is happening. Awareness of the risk is the key to prevention.

Enjoy this summer with your dogs, but never forget the risk of heat stroke.  

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