Heat Stroke 101: Hot Fun in the Summer?

That dreary, rainy spring is finally done. The sun is shining, and the sky is blue. Let’s take the dog for a run!

First, I’d like to share a story with you. One June afternoon, a family brought their three dogs, a Pug, a Labrador Retriever, and a Boston Terrier in for yearly vaccines. They lived nearby, within 2 miles, so decided to walk to the clinic. The temps in the 70s. It’s good exercise, right? And it’s so beautiful outside, the whole family will enjoy it.

When they got to the clinic, the staff noticed right away how worn out the dogs looked. Their tongues were lolling out of their mouths more than is usual, and flattened out. They were drooling excessively. The clients asked for water bowls for the dogs, but the staff knew they might need more than just a drink. A technician took the dogs straight to the treatment area, and got a doctor involved. Everyone was instantly concerned about heat stroke.

The Pug being the most at risk, because she was a bit overweight and had a short nose, had her vitals taken first. The normal body temperature for a dog is 100-102.5° Fahrenheit. Her temp was 106°. Her heart was racing. She was laboring to breathe.  The medical team started working to bring the dog’s temperature down, wetting her down with lukewarm water in the grooming tub, holding ice packs wrapped in damp towels against her chest and sides.

The Lab’s temp was 105°.  The same procedure began with her. The Boston terrier was only slightly above normal at 103°. The poor family was shocked and terrified! Had they killed their own dogs? They had even been carrying the Pug part of the way. The reception staff tried to reassure them as the medical team worked on the dogs.

Happily, everything turned out ok. The dog’s temps were brought down closer to normal, and their signs of distress eased. They began to act like happy dogs again, and seemed puzzled why everyone was fussing over them. (But what dog says no to being fussed over?) Vaccines were put off for another day, and after an hour or so of observation, the vet declared they could go home.

Just one problem: the family had walked to the clinic, and therefore had no car! Making the trip back would just repeat the danger. So one of the techs drove them all home in the doctor’s van, with the AC on full blast.

These nice folks learned the hard way about the dangers of summer heat. Luckily, the outcome was positive. But it can be deadly. So what can we do to protect our pets?

  1. NEVER leave your dog in a car doing the warm-hot months. Cracking the windows is not enough. Water supply is not enough. Still think it’s OK to leave your dog in the car while you shop? A brave veterinarian tried it out, and here’s what he learned. The temperature inside a closed car is at least 10-20 degrees hotter than outside. This time of year is harrowing, hearing stories of pets and children dying in hot cars. Don’t think it won’t happen to you. Don’t let it be you.
  2. Exercise your dogs in the early morning or mid-evening. Going for a run at lunch time can be exhilarating, but it’s not recommended. And observe your dog during their time outside, cutting it short if they seem to be tiring more easily than usual.
  3. During and after exercise, only allow your dog small amounts of water at a time. Drinking large amounts too quickly can lead to problems, one of which could be bloat. Don’t give them free access to food or water until they are well rested.
  4. If your dogs enjoy their days in the fenced-in yard, it is vital they have lots of shade and abundant fresh water. Check on them regularly, because heat stroke can come on fast. A fun activity can be playing in a plastic kiddie pool to stay comfortable, but only while you are present.
  5. If the weatherman puts out a high heat index warning, all pets should be kept inside. Even if they usually live outside, these days can be dangerous to them too.
  6. Cold snacks can really help. Stuff a Kong toy with peanut butter and freeze it, making it available when your dog comes in from exercise. Some dogs like eating ice cubes, and even frozen green beans! (Zero calories – wink wink.)  Ice cubes can also be added to water bowls. Watch it on the ice cream though – dogs can’t digest it.

A group at particular risk for heat stroke are those with flat faces and snub noses, or  brachycephalic dog breeds: Pug, Boxer, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bulldog (English and French), Mastiff, Boston Terrier, Shih Tzu, and Pekingese are a few examples. But it can happen to any dog. Dogs with black or thick coats, like Huskies, are in the high-risk group too.

If you suspect your dog has heat stroke, here are some steps you can take.

  • It’s important not to cool them too quickly, as this can shock their already weakened system. Don’t plunge Bailey into an ice bath.
  • Wet washcloths or towels with cool water and drape them over the dog’s torso and neck. Get more than one so you can change them out as they become warm from contact with the dog.
  • Ice or freezer packs applied over wet towels can help too.
  • Get Bailey into your shower if you can, and wet her down with cool, not cold, water, especially along her torso and the back of her neck.
  • Use a digital thermometer to check body temperature (you can do this!) rectally every 5 minutes. Remember: normal is 100-102.5° Fahrenheit. Temps above 104° are dangerous.
  • Get to the vet ASAP in an air-conditioned car. Let them know what you’ve done so far. Prolonged high body temperature, or hyperthermia, can cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. Some dogs need IV fluids to help them rehydrate and reduce or treat shock. Getting an exam as soon as possible is the best way to be sure the emergency is over.

Now that I have thoroughly terrified you, please take heart. I really don’t mean to scare you. I share this so you can be aware of the risks of the season while you enjoy the summer with your pet. You have a wonderful friend by your side, so go have fun now that you know what to prevent.


Helpful Articles (Click on the colored links)

The ASPCA has a wonderful article on summer safety for your dogs AND cats.

It’s a good idea to brush up on picnic and fireworks safety too.

And I don’t want you to not enjoy running with your dog! Here is some good information on how to do it safely.

All of this goes for your cat too. Here’s my fave Pam Johnson-Bennett with healthy advice for your cat this summer.




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