Heat stroke in dogs
Can dogs get heat stroke?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Nothing beats soaking up the summer sun with your furry best friend, but the summer heat can also be dangerous if it’s not enjoyed correctly.
Dogs often suffer from heat stroke—something we in the veterinary world know as heat-induced hyperthermia—in the summer months… even on a relatively cool day. If the humidity is high and temperatures are creeping up above 27.6OC (that’s 80OF for our friends south of the border), it’s important to watch for signs of heat stroke and take preventative measures to protect your dog.
Heat stroke or heat exhaustion, heat stress or heat prostration—all of these should be treated as emergencies.
Before we dig into signs of heat stroke in dogs, the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, long term effects of heat stroke, and how to treat heat stroke in dogs, let’s start with a little anatomy, shall we?
How do dogs sweat?
EXPERT TIP: Similar to sweat palms in humans, dogs’ paw pads can sweat, too. While it’s not enough to significantly bring down their body temperature, sweaty paw pads are usually a good indicator your pet is feeling nervous!
Us humans sweat to cool our bodies off. This isn’t the case for dogs: their main way of bringing down their body temperature is by panting. Panting allows moisture to evaporate from their tongues, nose, and lungs, helping release heat from their bodies. Keep this in mind as we carry on.
What is heat stroke in dogs?
Dog heat stroke symptoms are characteristically marked by an elevation in body temperature (hyperthermia) of 41°C (105.8°F).
There are two types of heat stroke in dogs: nonexertional and exertional.
Nonexertional heat stroke is what we consider “classic” heat stroke—that is, heat stroke caused by humid, hot weather.
Exertional heat stroke, on the other hand, is the result of strenuous exercise or activity.
No matter the type, ultimately what’s happening is your dog is experiencing increased heat production that overcomes their natural ability to effectively dissipate heat from their body (AKA panting).
Common causes of dog heat stroke include:
EXPERT TIP: It takes less time than you’d think for your car to become uncomfortably hot. A recent study from Stanford University Medical Center found a vehicle’s internal temperature can rise by a staggering 40°F within 60 minutes.
- Leaving a dog in a car without adequate ventilation or air conditioning, even for a short period of time
- Being left outdoors without access to shade or water on a hot day
- Being otherwise confined without adequate ventilation, access to water, or in direct sunlight
- Being incredibly excited or undergoing strenuous exercise like a long run
- Being overweight and out of shape
EXPERT TIP: If you’re a dog parent to a husky, the best thing you can do to protect them (outside of the preventative measures in this post) is to keep your pup well groomed.
- Smooshed-faced (brachycephalic) breeds (e.g., French bulldog, pug) are predisposed to heat stroke as they anatomically can’t pant or breath like long-nosed breeds
- Being a breed with a thick coat, like a Siberian huskies
One or more of these conditions create an environment ripe for heat stroke, but what do they mean when it comes to heat stroke severity? Is a mild heat stroke in dogs still cause for concern? We’ll tackle that next.
Heat stroke vs heat exhaustion in dogs
Mild heat stroke in dogs sometimes presents as what we call heat exhaustion.
In the case of heat exhaustion in dogs, their body temperature is below 40OC but they’re still exhibiting signs of discomfort and distress: panting, pacing, and seeking out water are a few to keep an eye out for.
Whether it’s heat stroke or heat exhaustion, no matter the severity it’s important to help your dog cool off as quickly as possible. Understanding dog heat stroke signs and symptoms will clue you in to what’s going on so you are better prepared to deal with it.
Signs of heat stroke in a dog
Signs of a heat stroke in a dog can be anywhere on the spectrum from vague to impossible to miss. Frustrating, we know! Here are dog heat stroke symptoms to be on the watch for:
EXPERT TIP: We recommend veterinary intervention because dogs with more advanced heat stroke may require specialized treatment, including oxygen, IV fluids, medications, and even hospitalization. More times than not, a dog that is promptly and effectively treated will bounce back to full health. Don’t take the risk and DIY!
Early signs of heat stroke include:
- Excessive panting or rapid breathing
- Excessive drooling
- Dry or sticky gums
- Super red tongue and gums
- Bruising of the gums
- Skin feels hot to the touch
- Sudden hyperactivity and disorientation
Signs of more advanced heat stroke include:
- Pale or blue gums
- Very high, irregular heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle tremors or lethargy
- Uncontrolled urination or defecation
EXPERT TIP: Wait… rectal temperature? Yes, you heard that right. Rectal is another word for your dog’s cute little behind. If you have a human digital thermometer on hand or you’re travelling with your dog first aid kit, this is the most accurate way to gauge your dog’s body temperature. After applying a circle of OB lube or vaseline, gently insert the thermometer into your dog’s rectum and hold it there until the thermometer beeps. (This should only take about 10 seconds, but those 10 seconds will probably feel like an eternity for both of you.) Don’t worry—even though you might feel uncomfortable, this is a pain-free process for your dog. Not sure you can hack it? Your second best option is to hold the digital thermometer tightly under their armpit.
In a perfect world, no dog would ever reach this point, but if it happens it’s critical to stay calm and act fast.
How to treat heat stroke in dogs
If you notice any of the above signs of dog heat stroke, stop whatever you’re doing and turn your attention to cooling down your pup. We always recommend a trip to the nearest veterinary care facility to get them checked out, but there are things you can do in the interim, too.
Treating dogs with heat stroke: What to do
- Remove your dog from the culprit environment. This may mean taking them out of the car, off the hot sand, or away from your sunny backyard.
- Move your dog to a shaded, cool area and begin to fan them. If you don’t have an electrical fan handy, a magazine or piece of paper will do in a pinch.
- Begin to cool your dog’s body by placing wet, cold towels over the back of the neck, in the armpits, and in the groin region. Wetting your dog’s ear flaps and paws with cool water can also provide much-needed relief. Kick the cooling process into high gear by directing a fan to these wetted areas.
- If possible, take and record your dog’s rectal temperature.
Treating dogs with heat stroke: What NOT to do
- Don’t overcool your pet. This can happen in two ways: by overdoing it on temperature (ice water instead of cool water) or by cooling your dog too quickly. If you don’t have a thermometer on hand, you’ll have to use your judgment; a mildly overheated dog, for example, won’t need an ice bath. Overreacting can do more harm than good.
EXPERT TIP: The goal is to go slow and steady, bringing your dog’s body temperature down to somewhere between 39.1 and 39.4°C (or 102.5 to 103°F).
- Don’t force water into your dog’s mouth. While it’s recommended you have fresh, cool water on offer, if your dog is experiencing drowsiness and isn’t exhibiting an interest in drinking, give it some time.
- Don’t leave your dog unattended for any length of time while they are recovering.
Long-term effects of heat stroke in dogs
Once a dog has experienced heat stroke, it’s true that they may be predisposed for it to happen again. All the more reason to keep a close eye on the weather, your dog, and ways to proactively prevent future attacks.
The long-term effects of heat stroke really depends on the dog and on a combination of factors (your dog’s health before heat stroke, heat stroke severity, and so on). Multiple organs in your dog’s body can be affected by heat stroke, but the most common complications include acute kidney or lung injury, both of which can negatively impact your dog’s circulatory system.
Think of it this way: when your dog is suffering from heat stroke, their organs heat up and go into panic mode. Our job as veterinary professionals and yours as a dog parent is to prevent or treat the panic.
Even after you have successfully brought down your dog’s body temperature, we still recommend booking a visit to the vet. There are many supportive therapies your veterinary team can implement to minimize negative effects and maximize your dog’s comfort during recovery
Preventing heat stroke in dogs
Prevention is paws down the best medicine when it comes to heat stroke. When you’re planning your next outdoor or playtime adventure, keep the following tips in mind:
EXPERT TIP: Pack a collapsible water dish and a reusable water bottle anytime you’re outside the home. We prefer silicone dishes because they’re heat resistant, eco-friendly, convenient, and portable. When you’re completing our Waggle Mail intake form, let us know if you and your dog are avid adventurers; you might just find one in your next dog subscription box!
- Take breaks. Whether your dog is casually playing or actively exercising, it’s important for both of you to take breaks. Dogs tend to do what we ask with great enthusiasm, even when they’re hot and tired.
- Limit exercise when things heat up. If it’s a hot, humid day, opt for moderate instead of vigorous exercise. Dogs’ ability to cool themselves (panting) can be hampered by humidity. Play in the early morning or evening instead when temperatures are more moderate.
- Offer water often. Same goes for shade and shelter.
- Don’t leave your dog in the car, even if it’s a “nice” day. Don’t be fooled by your air conditioning; it may not be enough to keep the temperature down if your car is in direct sunlight or the temperature outside starts to creep up.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO