By Ashley Gallagher, DVM
We are deep in the dog days of summer — a dangerous time for our canine companions. Dogs do not sweat in the same way humans do and can easily become overheated, which can lead to heat stroke and severe medical complications, including death. Watch for the following signs of heat stroke in dogs and contact a veterinarian immediately if you suspect your dog is in distress.
Many of you may know that a dog’s primary way to cool off is through panting (dogs can also dissipate some excess body heat through their paw pads). But did you know there are different degrees of how strenuously a dog pants? When exposed to warmer temperatures dogs usually start with a slightly opened mouth light panting. As they get warmer it will progress to fully openmouthed pant accompanied with a swollen tongue that hangs out to the side. If you notice your dog is panting heavily, get him to a cool and shady spot immediately — preferably somewhere with a fan or air conditioning. Also, offer your dog fresh water.
If your dog is drooling excessively while in hot temperatures it can be a sign that he is having a hard time cooling off. Creating excess saliva helps your dog dissipate heat better than just panting alone. Of course it's best to not wait until your dog is drooling like a faucet to get inside and cooled off.
While on a summer stroll or during outdoor activities you may have noticed your dog trying to lie down and take a break. This is a clear sign that he is feeling the effects of the heat and probably needs to go inside to cool down immediately. Allow him some time to recover and offer a drink of water before going indoors. If, however, your dog collapses from the heat, wet his coat with water and rush him to a veterinarian or animal hospital.
A racing or irregular heart beat is another sign your dog could be overheating. The increased heart rate is the body’s attempt to pump as much overheated blood as possible to the extremities and away from vital organs, where it can cause damage. If this happens to your dog, rush him to a veterinarian or animal hospital.
If your dog exhibits moderate to severe lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea (especially bloody), lack of appetite or neurologic signs such as stumbling and seizures at any point after being in the heat, seek veterinary attention immediately! These could be indications that he suffered damage to internal organs secondary to heat stroke, which can lead to death if treatment isn't initiated rapidly.
There are some things you do at home in order to cool down your dog's body temperature while you call a veterinarian or animal hospital. Wet your dog with cool but NOT iced water or ice in order to bring the body temperature down. It may seem counterintuitive but the body's response to the ice or iced water may actually prevent heat loss. Then check your dog's initial body temperature as you begin to cool him off and recheck every 10-15 minutes. Once you reach 103°F you can stop cooling and consider seeking medical care, especially if your dog was exposed to prolonged heat or if the initial temperature reading was greater than 105 degrees.
As with most everything in life, prevention is always the best medicine. A dog should always have access to fresh water and shade to get out of the sun. NEVER leave your dog in a parked car, even with the windows cracked as it can reach dangerous temperatures within minutes. If you have a brachycephalic (smushy-faced) breed like a Pug or Bulldog be aware that their unique anatomy makes them especially sensitive to hot weather. Finally, consider speaking with your veterinarian about adding in canned food to your dog’s summer diet. The increased moisture content of canned diets can help keep your dog well hydrated and ready for summer fun.