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The Animalife Veterinary Center

Heat Exhaustion in Dogs

Dog on beach in the sand

Are you endangering your pet’s life?

Even the most well-intentioned people underestimate the potential danger of heat when it comes to their pet’s health. It’s easy to over-exert your dog on a warm day. As for leaving your dog in the car while you ‘Run into the store to grab a few groceries’? Well, that’s tantamount to delivering a death sentence.

Why is heat stroke in dogs so life-threatening?

Unlike us, dogs don’t sweat through their skin; they sweat through their foot pads and their nose. They also cool down by panting. Not exactly the most efficient system, is it? That’s why, in seemingly harmless situations, a dog’s body temperature can very quickly rise, and believe me,  just a few degrees increase in body temperature can cause profound organ damage, particularly to the brain; or even worse, death.

Dogs die in hot cars.

This one really gets me because it happens time and again. Take a minute when next you get back into your car after you’ve shopped—feel how much hotter it is inside than when you left it. Then imagine you’re wearing a fur coat. And you can’t get out.

A car can be likened to a solar-powered oven: on a sunny day, temperatures can reach over 120 degrees within minutes. Even in the shade, a car’s temperature rises rapidly. A dog owner once left her pet in a car in my own parking lot! My practice is in South Florida—it’s always hot here. When we couldn’t track the owner, we called the police and I had staff monitor the dog. The police arrived about the same time the dog owner showed up and fortunately, the pet wasn’t injured. I recall the police officer lectured the owner for at least 20 minutes. Hopefully, she won’t be foolish enough to do that again.

I wish I could say all dogs left in cars were that lucky. Sadly, I’ve seen more deaths in my hospital than I can count.  When a pet comes in unconscious, with a body temperature above the measurable limits of my digital thermometer, the prognosis is grave.

Working them too hard.

I know another dog owner who went hog hunting with his pit bull, and even though the dog had canals to cool off in, and the hunter brought along water for him to drink, the dog ran himself until his core temperature reached a critical point. By the time the dog came to me it was unconscious, and in spite of every effort to save him, he went into multiple organ failure and died. The owner had underestimated the danger.

Too much fun can give a dog heatstroke

Sometimes good pet owners simply fail to appreciate how quickly a dog can get heat exhaustion. A good friend called one evening to say his border collie had collapsed after chasing a Frisbee for a while. I have a border collie of my own, and although at her age chasing a Frisbee is very low on her list of priorities, there was a time when Mouse would chase a Frisbee or a tennis ball until she was absolutely exhausted. That’s just the nature of the breed: they are obsessed with the game and will not stop until they collapse. The thing about my friend’s situation was that the sun wasn’t even out at the time they were playing, yet it was still warm enough for his dog to suffer heat exhaustion. Thankfully, he was able to cool her down and all was well, but it did teach a couple of valuable lessons:

One: it doesn’t have to be sunny to trigger heat stroke in dogs.

Two:  keep your pet’s personality in mind. A breed like a border collie will not stop before it gets over-heated and reaches crisis point. Labrador and terrier owners should keep this one mind too.

Two Myths

  1. Dogs who live outside will tolerate temperatures they’re acclimated to, as long as they have shade and lots of fresh water …

Friends of mine in Oklahoma have been sending me weather updates; temperatures have been as high as 107 degrees. Folks, when it’s that hot, no living thing but scorpions and cacti should be outside.  Let your dog out long enough to poop and pee—that’s it—then get him back inside with the AC on.

2. Long thick fur protects a dog from the heat …

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that one, and it defies every bit of logic! Dogs with thick coats are bred especially for cold climates; those coats are needed to keep heat in. Again, you go put on Grandma’s fur coat and walk around the block in hot weather, then come and tell me how much that coat protected you from the heat. That is, if you make it that far. Dogs with thick coats like chows and huskies are particularly vulnerable. Find a good groomer and have them shave that thick fur off for the summer. My border collie loves it … your dog will thank you.

What do I do if my dog gets heat stroke?

First, recognize that your dog is getting stressed: panting is normal but if your dog is REALLY panting and becoming lethargic, then he’s getting close to being in real danger.

Second, you need to cool him down fast.

  • If you’re on a walk, get him into the shade.

  • Bang on someone’s door and beg them to let you use their hose to cool your pet.

  • Give him cool water to drink—but not too much.

  • Don’t try to walk him any further than you have to. If you can’t carry the dog, get on your cell phone and call for help … call the police if you have to. This is an



    and must be treated as such.

  • Get him as quickly as you can to your veterinarian’s office so they can get a thermometer into him and decide if he needs more intensive medical care.

How do you prevent heat stroke in dogs?

  • Be careful of how far you walk with your pet.

  • Be aware of how long your pet’s been active outside.

  • Always carry water, and keep a close eye on how your dog’s doing.

  • If your dog wants to stop and lie in the shade, let him.

  • Cool him down, and get him into a tub or under a hose ASAP.

One last story. I took my Rottweiler with to a parade in Charleston, SC one morning. It wasn’t hot when we left the house but when we got downtown, it was jammed with people and the breeze was blocked by buildings and the crowds. Raven started to go into stress. We made a bee-line for the fire station (where else would you get lots of water?) and soaked him down until I was confident he was OK. We sent a runner for the car, and didn’t make Raven walk another step.

See? It can even happen to a veterinarian! Talk about a lesson learned …

Randy Eisel