12 don't-miss signs your pet may be getting overheated

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

overheating in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Summer is upon us, and with it come the joys of warm weather, but also potential hazards for canine family members
  • The biggest danger on hot summer days is the risk of overheating leading to heatstroke
  • Symptoms of overheating include panting, excessive thirst and elevated body temperature; dogs at increased risk for heatstroke including brachycephalic breeds, seniors, puppies and dogs with chronic health conditions
  • If you think your pet is overheated or experiencing heatstroke, you must take immediate action to cool his body down and seek veterinary care
  • It’s also important to prevent sunburn in your dog, especially if she’s hairless or has a short or white coat

Summer is in full swing, and as enjoyable as this time of year is, it's important to play it safe when it comes to fun in the sun for canine family members.

Dogs have a higher average body temperature than humans, and less ability to cool down. Whereas our bodies are covered with sweat glands, your dog's sweat glands are confined to just his nose and the pads of his feet. Dogs regulate their body temperature primarily by panting, which isn't all that effective in hot weather. In a very short period of time, an overheated dog can suffer critical damage to his brain, heart, liver and nervous system.

Signs to watch for

Heatstroke, which is the ultimate and often deadly result of overheating, is caused by a dangerous elevation in an animal's body temperature. While it most often occurs in dogs left in cars during the summer months, it can also happen in late spring and the first weeks of summer if a pet is exposed to high temperatures before she has acclimated to the heat. Symptoms of overheating include:

Heavy panting or rapid breathing

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, stumbling

Unconsciousness

In addition to hot vehicles, other contributors to overheating in dogs include lack of drinking water, humid conditions, overexertion and obesity.

Some pets are at higher risk for heat-related illness than others, especially brachycephalic breeds (dogs with flat faces and short noses), as well as older pets, puppies and kittens, animals who are ill or have a chronic health condition, those not used to warm weather and any dog left outside in the heat.

How to keep your dog happy and healthy in hot weather

Provide plenty of fresh clean drinking water at all times — In addition to overheating, your dog can become dehydrated very rapidly in warm weather. A good general guideline is that a healthy dog should drink between one-half and 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight each day. And if she'll be outside for any length of time, she should have access to complete shade. Periodically encourage her to play in the sprinkler or gently hose her down with cool water to prevent overheating.

Schedule outdoor exercise and playtime for the coolest parts of the day — In most locations, this means early in the morning or after sunset. Try to stay in the shade during daylight hours, and no matter the time of day, don't overdo outdoor exercise or play sessions. Even on an overcast day or in the evening, a long period of physical exertion in hot weather can cause heatstroke in your dog. A good rule of thumb is if outdoor temps hit 90 degrees, your pet should be indoors where it's cool.

Avoid hot pavement — Not only can pavement on a hot day burn your dog's paws, but the heat rising from concrete or asphalt can quickly overheat an animal that lives close to the ground. Also don't allow your dog to stand, walk or rest on hot outdoor surfaces like sidewalks or parking lots.

If you must walk him across pavement in the heat of the day, plot the shortest route and walk at a brisk pace. If he's not too large or heavy, consider carrying him till you reach a cooler surface. If all else fails, dog shoes work to prevent burned pads.

Never leave your furry family member alone in a parked car — not even for a minute — On a warm day, the temperature inside your vehicle can rise quickly into the danger zone. For example, on an 85-degree day it takes only 10 minutes for the temperature inside your parked car to climb to 102 degrees. In a half hour, it can rise to 120 degrees.

Leaving windows cracked doesn't drop the temperature inside the vehicle, and leaving your car running with the air conditioner on is dangerous for a number of reasons.

Leaving a pet unattended in a vehicle in extreme heat or cold is a criminal act in several states and municipalities. Most statutes have rescue provisions that allow certain individuals, for example police officers, firefighters, animal control officers and store employees to do whatever is necessary to rescue an animal trapped in a vehicle in extreme temperatures.

On summer days, it's best to leave your pet home, inside, where she can stay cool, hydrated and safe. "Outside dogs" may need to come inside, or somewhere cooler, when temperatures rise above 95 degrees. Shade (and warm water) will not prevent heatstroke in extreme temperatures.

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If your dog becomes overheated

If you think your dog (or any dog) is experiencing heatstroke, you must take immediate action. Move the animal to a cool area, preferably with air conditioning. At a minimum you should get him out of direct sunlight and to a shady spot.

If he's able to stand, or is at least conscious, offer him small amounts of water to drink and take his temperature rectally if possible. If the temp is 104 degrees F or lower, continue to offer small drinks of water. Take care not to give a large amount of water all at once, which can cause vomiting that leads to dehydration. When your dog seems more comfortable, call your veterinarian for instructions on what to do next.

If he's unable to stand without assistance, is unresponsive or is having seizures, first check for breathing and a heartbeat. At the same time, someone should call the closest veterinary hospital to let them know you're on your way with your dog.

Immediately start cooling him down by soaking his body with cool (not cold) water, using a hose, wet towels or any other available source of cool water. Concentrate the water on his head, neck and the areas underneath the front and back legs. If possible, try to pour some water over his tongue, but don't let it run into his throat as it could get into the lungs. Never put water into the mouth of a pet that can't swallow on his own.

Put a fan on your dog if possible, as it will speed up the cooling process. Take his temperature if you can. After a few minutes, recheck the temp. If it's at or below 104 degrees F, stop the cooling process to prevent blood clotting or a too-low body temperature. Get your dog to a veterinary clinic immediately, even if he seems to be recovering.

Something else to avoid during the summer months: Doggy sunburn

It's not always safe to assume that just because your dog wears a fur coat, he's protected from skin cancer. Dogs who shouldn't overdo it include those with:

  • No coat (hairless)
  • Short coats
  • White coats
  • Dogs with pink or light-colored noses
  • Dogs who spend lots of time lying in the sun (especially if they lie on their backs)

You can protect your dog from the sun's harmful rays with a nontoxic, dog safe sunscreen. I recommend a product designed to not only help protect your pet from potentially harmful rays, but also to nourish and moisturize the skin. Look for a product that contains no dangerous chemical ingredients, parabens, artificial fragrances, nanoparticles or mineral oil. It should also be noncomedogenic (doesn't irritate or clog pores) and developed using no animal testing or cruelty.

I also recommend products that contain only zinc oxide for active UVA and UVB ray protection. Unlike some chemical sunscreens that may absorb ultraviolet light, zinc oxide helps reflect and scatter away both UVA and UVB rays from your pet's body. Zinc oxide is found naturally in the earth's crust and is a safe ingredient to help prevent excessive sun exposure.

When you put sunscreen on your dog, be sure to avoid the eyes but definitely get the area around her face and ears covered, as well as her tummy if she likes to sunbathe belly-up. If she'll be outside for an extended period, reapply the sunscreen about every two hours.

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