Heat Stroke in Dogs: Signs, Treatment, and Prevention Expert Advice
How to take precautions for your pup when temperatures rise.
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Mostly sunny days and mid-70s bliss, sounds like the perfect weather for a fun-filled outing with your pet, right? For the most part, the answer is “yes,” but these are the days when you have to be extra cautious about heat stroke in dogs. Dogs can quickly die from heat stroke — and not just from being left in an unattended car in hot weather — “sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly.”
What is Heat Stroke in Dogs?
Heat stroke in dogs, also known as hyperthermia, is a severe and life-threatening emergency that occurs when a dog’s body temperature rises to dangerous levels, typically over 105°F. The normal body temperature of a dog is 101.5°F ±1. High temperatures, excessive physical activity in hot weather, or confinement in a hot and poorly ventilated car are the typical culprits of this condition, but it can happen even in mild temperatures. Heat-related illnesses come in three stages, each leading to the next if left untreated.
Heat Stress: Heat stress is a precursor to the more severe heat-related illnesses. With heat stress, dogs may have increased thirst and panting but can generally walk and behave normally.
Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion, a milder form of heat stroke, occurs if a dog’s body temperature rises above 103°F. Signs of heat exhaustion in dogs may include excessive panting, increased thirst, weakness, fatigue, and potential collapse. If heat exhaustion is left untreated, it will result in heat stroke.
Heat Stroke: It’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately if your pup is experiencing this serious condition. If left untreated, prolonged exposure to high temperatures and heat exhaustion can result in organ failure and potentially lead to death.
Many people are unaware of how dogs process heat and how easily dogs can succumb to heat stroke. Dogs cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as humans because they depend upon rapid breathing (panting) to exchange their warm body air for cooler environmental air. When the air temperature is close to body temperature, cooling by rapid breathing is no longer an efficient process, and dogs can succumb to heat stroke in a relatively short time.
Common Causes of Heat Stroke
Leaving a dog in the car with “the windows cracked.”
It isn’t safe to leave dogs in a car, even in mild temperatures. Here’s the math: When left in a car on a relatively cool 75-degree day, the temperature within a vehicle can increase an average of 40°F within one hour. That equates to 115°F in the car, whether the windows are “cracked” or not.
When an animal is left outdoors or exercised in hot or humid weather.
You might be surprised how many pets have developed heat stroke while out for a routine walk. One risk factor is short legs. Dogs with short legs are closer to the pavement, which radiates additional heat, contributing to the development of heat exhaustion or stroke. It is important that dogs have adequate shade when outdoors.
Other factors that increase the risk of heat stroke.
Risk factors that make dogs more susceptible to heat stroke include age (puppies and seniors are at higher risk), obesity, existing breathing or heart conditions, and brachycephaly. Brachycephalic breeds are short-nosed flat-faced dogs such as a Pekingese, Pug, Lhasa Apso, Boston Terrier, or Bulldog. These dogs suffer from ineffectual panter syndrome, which basically means that their elongated palate in a short face interferes with their ability to pant, and that can be fatal.
Signs of Heat Stroke in Dogs
Initially, the main symptom of heat stroke in dogs is excessive panting. Dogs suffering from heat stroke will appear distressed and become restless. As the heat stroke progresses, the dog may drool large amounts of saliva from the nose and/or mouth and may even become unsteady on their feet. You may notice the gums turning blue/purple or bright red, which is due to inadequate oxygen.
Distressed and restless behavior
Blue/purple or bright red gums
Increased heart rate
How to Treat Heat Stroke in Dogs
Severe heat stroke is a disease that affects nearly every system in the dog’s body. Simply lowering the body temperature fails to address the potentially catastrophic events often accompanying this disorder. A dog suffering from heat stroke should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for appropriate care. Here’s what you should do if you suspect your dog has heat stroke:
Immediately, move your dog to a shaded and cool environment.
If possible, determine the rectal temperature and record it.
Begin to cool the body by placing wet towels (use cool tap water) over the dog’s back of the neck, armpits, and groin region. Refresh often.
Wet the dog’s ear flaps and paws with cool water.
Direct a fan to the wet areas to speed up evaporative cooling.
Transport your pup to the closest available veterinary clinic immediately.
Most dogs with heat stroke have body temperatures greater than 105°F, and a reasonable goal of cooling is to reduce your pet’s body temperature to between 102.5°F and 103°F while transporting them to the closest veterinary facility.
Once your pup arrives at the vet, they can provide better supportive treatment for heat stroke and the associated complications. Your veterinarian will aim to increase blood volume and enhance blood circulation, balance electrolytes, and may administer antibiotics to prevent complications from infections and sepsis. If your pup has a thick undercoat, it may be shaved to help increase cooling. Your vet will likely provide your dog with oxygen therapy at the time of admittance, but in more severe cases, general anesthesia with 100% oxygen may be required.
What NOT To Do During a Heat Stroke:
Avoid using ice. Rapidly cooling off the dog is extremely important but do not use cold water or ice for cooling! While ice or cold water may seem logical, its use is not advised. Ice or cold water will cause superficial blood vessels to shrink (vasoconstriction), effectively forming an insulating layer of tissue to hold the heat inside. This causes the cooling of the body’s innermost structures to actually be delayed — the opposite effect that you want. Tap water is more suitable for effective cooling.
Avoid forcing water. Keep an eye on your pet and do not leave them unattended for any length of time. Do not attempt to force water into your dog’s mouth, but you may have fresh cool water ready to offer should your dog be alert and show an interest in drinking.
How Can I Prevent Heat Stroke in My Dog?
There are a number of things you can do to prevent heat stroke in your dog.
Make sure your dog has access to plenty of fresh, cool water at all times.
Avoid exercising your dog on hot days.
Avoid strenuous exercise during the hottest part of the day, between 11am and 5pm.
Never leave your dog in a parked car, even in mild weather or “just” for a few minutes.
Make sure your dog has a shady spot to rest in.
Cool off your pup with a damp cloth.
Plan to give your pup plenty of breaks.
Don’t leave your dog alone in a garage or other enclosed area.
Avoid walking on sand, concrete or other hot surfaces which may reflect heat.
What Are the Potential Complications of Heat Stroke in Dogs?
Heat stroke is very damaging to the body, so the prognosis is poor. Over 40 percent of dogs die following an episode of heat stroke, often due to multi-organ failure (MOD) or abnormal bleeding and excessive clotting (disseminated intravascular coagulation). Most deaths occur within 24 hours, and survival past 48 hours usually results in a good prognosis. Some dogs suffer from long-term effects such as permanent organ damage requiring life-long care. But immediate treatment will give your dog the best chance for survival. Some of the complications of heat stroke include:
Excessive blood clotting
Neurological (brain) damage
What if I See a Pet in Distress?
Some states prohibit leaving dogs unattended in vehicles, yet it is still a common sight. Since each state and local governments have different laws, if you do happen to see a pet in distress, you can call the local animal control agency, police, or 911 for assistance. Any peace officer, humane officer, or animal control officer is authorized to take all steps necessary to remove an animal from an unattended car.
Heat Stroke in Dogs FAQ
Are there any first aid measures I can take for a dog with heatstroke?
Dogs with heatstroke should be immediately taken to the vet. While in transit, utilize first aid measures to help cool your dog: apply wet, cool towels on the dog’s back of the neck, armpits, and groin region, then use a fan to help evaporate the heat.
How does heatstroke occur in dogs?
Heat stroke is a devastating condition that occurs when a dog overheats and cannot cool off on their own. Unlike humans, dogs cool themselves by panting, which makes them much more susceptible to heat-related illnesses.
What are the potential complications of heat stroke in dogs?
Potential complications for heat stroke in dogs include seizures, organ failure, blood clots, excessive bleeding, brain damage, heart problems, infections, and even death.
How can I prevent heat stroke in my dog?
You can prevent heat stroke in your dog by providing ample access to fresh cool water, providing them plenty of shade, avoiding exercising in the heat, and never leaving your dog unattended in a car.
What should I do if I suspect my dog has heat stroke?
If you suspect your dog has heat stroke, you should apply cool, wet towels on your dog’s neck, armpits, and groin area, then rush to the veterinarian immediately. Early treatment can significantly improve your pup’s chances for recovery.
When should I seek veterinary help for a dog with heat stroke?
You should seek veterinary help immediately if you suspect your dog has heat stroke. The sooner they receive care, the better their prognosis – call ahead to ensure your vet is available or take them to an emergency vet.
Can heat stroke be fatal for dogs?
Yes, heat stroke in dogs can be fatal. If you suspect your dog is suffering from this life-threatening condition, you should take your dog to the vet ASAP.
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Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV
Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.