Heatstroke – how heat can kill

October 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm
Golden retriever

We are starting to get into some warmer weather in Australia and unfortunately this is the time of year that vets start to see overheated dogs. When it occurs it is devastating and often fatal and it all happens so quickly. No one sets out to cause their dog harm, but in many cases heatstroke is preventable. Today we go through a few things to be aware of to keep your pet safe.

There are a few factors that make dogs in general more susceptible to heat stroke and some breeds are just more prone to developing problems quickly. Dogs don’t sweat (well, maybe a little through their footpads), so the only way they have of cooling down is via panting. Dogs that have short noses like Staffordshire Bull Terriers (Staffys) are less efficient than long-nosed dogs at panting. They also tend to heat up quickly when exercising due to their huge muscle bulk, as muscles generate lots of heat.

Common situations that lead to heatstroke

  • Being locked in a car – within five minutes the temperature increases significantly, often reaching 30-40°C higher than outside the vehicle. Even on a relatively mild day, with the windows open, fatal temperatures occur rapidly.
  • Strenuous exercise – Staffys are also known for obsessively chasing that ball until the point of collapse and overheating. Jogging and cycling with your dog on a hot day are also risky activities.
  • Seizures – epileptic dogs are at risk of heatstroke due to the muscle spasms generating heat.
  • Brachycephalic dogs – a short-nosed dog like a Bulldog, Staffy or Pekinese is less efficient at panting.
  • Confinement without shade or water – a common one is a dog tied up outside a shop or on the back of a Ute in the sun.
  • Sunny days on the beach with no shade (bright white sand reflects heat).
  • Obesity, respiratory or heart disease put your dog at risk.
  • Older and younger dogs are more prone to overheating.

Early signs and when to worry

If you have a dog at risk of heat stroke, early intervention is the key to saving your dog. The signs to look for in a dog heading towards heatstroke include:

  • Excessive panting.
  • Noise when breathing.
  • Bright red gums and tongue.
  • Thick, sticky, white string of saliva in the mouth.
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhoea (we advise not waiting on this one if you have some of the other signs!).
  • Weakness, staggering or collapse.
  • Seizures and coma (often by this time the chances of saving your pet are slim).

What to do

If your dog is showing any of the above signs on a hot day, or has been locked in a vehicle, exercising or out in the sun, cool them down quickly and get them to the vet.

Start the cooling as quickly as possible. If you are nearby a tap, wet them down. If you are at home spray your dog with the hose and move him into the shade. You can also put rolled up wet towels under the arms and in the groin area. Do not apply ice or put him in an ice bath! Be aware that after the cooling phase, you may have a hypothermic dog who is too cold.

Cooling should stop when the rectal temperature gets to 39°C (103°F) – dry your dog and cover him with a towel at this point and keep an eye on that temperature for further increases or decreases.

As soon as you have cooled your dog down, take him to the vet. It may seem like everything is fine, but sometimes swelling in the airways and dehydration can lead to later problems so treatment may be needed to reduce the risks.

If you are nowhere near a vet and you have caught the overheating fairly early on (before the point of collapse) let your dog have a little drink. Whatever you do, don’t let him gulp a litre of water at once, as he is likely just to bring it all up again. If you have any Pedialyte or electrolyte solution used to rehydrate humans, you can add a little of this to the water.

Heatstroke is a devastating condition when it occurs and while it is easily preventable it is a common condition seen in Australia during the warmer months. Keep your pet safe, out of the sun and don’t leave them locked in the car.