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The Dangers of Summertime Heat Stroke in Dogs

As the heat and humidity of the summer months are approaching quickly here in Central Virginia, pet owners should be aware of the dangers of heat stroke, one of the more common summer pet emergencies in dogs. Heat stroke is a situation in which a pet’s body temperature has risen way above normal and needs immediate veterinary attention. Unfortunately, our domestic pets don’t sweat the way we do to dissipate excess heat, so they aren’t as efficient at cooling their bodies as we are — and heat stroke can result. The condition can become fatal rapidly if left untreated, but is easily preventable with some common-sense measures.

Most dogs love to go for rides in the car. While this is fine in cooler months, the most common cause of heat stroke for dogs is being left in cars during the summertime. Even with the windows cracked or partially down, a car parked in the sun can get up to 140° within minutes — so leaving your pup in the car for even a quick errand is very risky and and can potentially have tragic consequences. Pets riding in the bed of a truck can also develop heat stroke.

Heat stroke can also result from overexertion, and when dogs are confined to concrete runs or chained up without shade or water. Dogs should never be left outdoors without access to shade. And even if a water bowl is left out for them, the bowl can easily be overturned — leaving the dog without water for the rest of the day. Also, plan to make trips to the dog park or exercise with your dog in the morning or evening, rather than during the heat of the day.

Heat stroke is more common in dogs that have a decreased ability to cool themselves. Since a dog’s primary method of cooling itself is panting, overweight dogs; geriatric dogs; dogs with short faces (e.g., Old English bulldogs and pugs); and dogs that have compromised airways or medical conditions like heart disease, laryngeal paralysis or seizure disorders are also at increased risk of developing heat stroke. So it’s very important to keep these dogs in a cool environment.

What are the signs of heat stroke?
Heavy, excessive panting is the first sign, followed by salivation and listlessness. Other signs include vomiting, diarrhea and muscle tremors. And in severe cases, dogs may collapse, lose consciousness, experience seizures or die. The sequence of events can be very rapid, and death can occur within 24 hours, so pets displaying these signs need to be brought in to a veterinary hospital immediately.

What should you do if you suspect heat stroke in your dog?
Call a veterinarian right away, begin cooling your pet, and get them to a veterinary hospital immediately. Before leaving for the hospital, spray your dog down with cool water and place a fan in front of them. You can also place damp cloths on their stomachs or paws. You may also offer them cool water to drink, but some pets will not be able to drink appropriately and may breathe in some of the water. Do not place them in ice or an ice bath, as cooling them too quickly can result in a dangerous condition. Another important thing you can do as an owner is to keep your pet calm — the more stressed he/she gets, the higher his/her temperature may get.

What will happen at the veterinary hospital?
Once the patient is admitted, your dog may need to be cooled and given intravenous fluid therapy and other medications. They will likely need to be hospitalized for several days, as many serious conditions can develop from heat stroke, including bloody diarrhea; heart, liver, kidney and neurologic abnormalities; and bleeding disorders. The most critical time period is the first 24-48 hours after incident. Although pets may still be sick and require treatment after this time period, most that live through this first initial phase will survive.

So this summer, have fun with your pets! But be safe, make sure they have plenty of cool water to drink and plenty of shade and rest, and do not leave them in your car unattended. If you notice any signs of heat stroke in your pet, call your veterinarian or veterinary hospital ASAP!

© 2010 Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital. All rights reserved.

  1. Reply
    Noelle Garvey

    Please settle a disagreement for me. I live in Jackson, TN. My Husband brought our dog to my place of work. It was around 8:00 am, cloudless day and a humid 77 degrees. The windows were down four inches, A/C was not on, no shade. How many minutes on average would it take a fifty pound dog to start to get heat stroke? Thank you for your time.

    • Reply
      Dr. Stewart

      Good question, I would probably think that a dog would start to be uncomfortable in as little as 5 minutes with no breeze, and direct sunlight. The car would be 20 or more degrees above ambient at that point. By 10 minutes your dog would start to overheat would be my guess. The real answer is to see what the dog was doing. As soon as he starts panting heavily, I would be concerned. There are studies that show the higher the humidity the faster the heatstroke because dogs cool via evaporation in panting and the humidity reduces evaporation cooling. It also depends on the dog’s weight, breed and cardiovascular system (ie in good condition like a greyhound, or bad condition like a bulldog). You are correct that this scenario is a serious risk to your dog! You win the bet, but what do I win?
      Dr. Tripp Stewart
      Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital
      Charlottesville VA

  2. Reply

    Hey my dog recently had a heat stroke. We tended to his needs, cooled him off, and brought him to the vet. My pupper survived and came home today. My question is will there be any lasting damage to him such as brain damage or loss of animation?

    • Reply
      Dr. Stewart

      Usually not, assuming it was not so bad he went into DIC and needed a transfusion. If not, he should be fine.

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