By Dr. Becker
The hot summer months are almost upon us, and tragically, many pets will succumb to heat-related deaths between now and the arrival of cooler weather in the fall.
Most cases of dogs dying from heat exposure go unreported, so no statistics exist on how widespread the problem is. But estimates are that several hundred dogs suffer this slow, agonizing and entirely preventable fate every summer.
The loss of a beloved pet is hard enough when death is expected and the passing is painless. But losing a furry family member to an avoidable case of heatstroke is something many pet owners can never forgive themselves for.
Leaving a dog unattended in a vehicle in extreme temperatures is currently a criminal offense in a handful of states and several cities and towns. Most of the laws on the books have rescue provisions that allow certain individuals – typically police officers, firefighters, animal control officers, and store employees – to take whatever action is necessary to free an animal from a vehicle in dangerously hot or cold weather.
No matter where you live, if you see an animal left in someone else's parked car in the heat, notify a store employee or mall security right away. If the pet's owner can't be located immediately, animal control or the police should be called. A pet can suffer permanent damage or death in a very short time when left in a parked vehicle on a hot day.
Symptoms of Overheating in Dogs
On an 85-degree day it takes only 10 minutes for the interior of your parked car to climb to 102 degrees. In a half hour, it can reach 120 degrees. And leaving windows partially open doesn't drop the temperature inside the vehicle.
Keep in mind your dog has a higher body temp than you do and she can't cool down as efficiently as you do, either. Your dog is designed more for insulation from the cold than cooling down in the heat.
You have sweat glands all over your body, but your dog's are confined to her nose and the pads of her feet. A dog that is heating up can only normalize her body temperature through panting, which just doesn't get the job done under extreme conditions. In a very short period of time, an overheated dog can suffer critical damage to her brain, heart, liver and nervous system.
Symptoms of overheating in dogs include:
Heavy panting Elevated body temperature Excessive thirst Weakness, collapse Glazed eyes Increased pulse and heartbeat Vomiting, bloody diarrhea Seizures Bright or dark red tongue, gums Excessive drooling Staggering Unconsciousness
Some dogs are at higher risk for heat-related illness than others, including brachycephalic breeds (dogs with flat faces and short noses), older dogs, puppies, dogs that are ill or have a chronic health condition, dogs not used to warm weather, any dog left outside in hot weather, and dogs that are allowed to overexert themselves in the heat.
From Overheating to Heatstroke
If your dog's body temperature gets to 109°F or higher, heatstroke is the result. The cells of the body rapidly start to die. The brain swells, causing seizures. Lack of blood supply to the GI tract causes ulcers. Dehydration leads to irreversible kidney damage. All these catastrophic events take place within a matter of minutes.
In the early stages of a heat-related illness it can be difficult to assess your dog's condition, since it's normal for him to pant when he's warm or while exerting himself.
I recommend you learn from your dog's vet how to take his temperature (it must be done rectally), and invest in a digital thermometer that you designate for doggie use only. It could come in handy if you're ever concerned your dog is overheated and need to know his body temperature.
I can't stress enough how important it is for pet owners to take every precaution to prevent overheating. By the time a dog is exhibiting symptoms of heatstroke, it's often too late to save him.
How to Help an Overheated Dog
If you think your pet or any dog is experiencing heatstroke, you should take immediate action and move him to a cool area, preferably with air conditioning. At a minimum you should move him to a shady spot.
Next, try to determine his condition. If he's standing, or if he's at least conscious and panting, offer him small amounts of water to drink and take his temperature if possible.
If his temp is 104ºF or lower, remain with him in a cool environment, watch him carefully and keep offering small drinks of water. A large volume of water all at once might cause him to vomit, which will add to the risk of dehydration. When he seems more comfortable, call your veterinarian for next steps. The vet may want to evaluate your dog even if he seems fully recovered.
If the dog is unable to stand on his own, is unresponsive to your voice, touch or the sight of you, or is having seizures, check for breathing and a heartbeat. At the same time, have someone contact a veterinary hospital (or make the call yourself if you're alone with your pet) to let them know you'll be bringing him in right away. It's important to alert the clinic you're on the way so they can prepare for your arrival.
Begin cooling your dog down by soaking his body with cool water – cool, but not cold. Use a hose, wet towels or any other source of cool water that is available. Take his temperature if possible. Concentrate the cooling water on his head, neck and in the areas underneath the front and back legs. Carefully cool the tongue if possible, but don't let water run into the throat as it could get into the lungs. Never put water in the mouth of a dog that can't swallow on his own. Put a fan on him if possible – it will speed up the cooling process.
After a few minutes, re-check his temperature. If it's at or below 104ºF, stop the cooling process. Further cooling could lead to blood clotting or a too-low body temperature. Get the dog to a veterinary clinic right away, even if he seems to be recovering.
Tips for Preventing Overheating
Provide plenty of fresh, clean drinking water at all times. If your dog will be outside for any length of time in warm weather, she should have access to complete shade. Periodically encourage her to play in the sprinkler or hose her down with cool water to prevent overheating.
If your dog has a long coat, give her a summer cut. Her fur can be shaved to a one-inch length to make her more comfortable when it's hot. Just don't go any shorter than an inch, because her coat protects her from the sun.
Exercise your dog early in the morning or after sunset, during the coolest parts of the day. Don't overdo exercise or play sessions, regardless of the time of day. And if it gets to be 90°F, your pet should be indoors where it's cool.
Don't walk or exercise your dog on hot pavement. Not only can it burn her paws, but the heat rising from concrete or asphalt can quickly overheat an animal that is close to the ground.
And once again, never leave your dog alone in a parked car on a warm day. Leave her where she's cool, hydrated, and waiting in comfort for your return home.