Heat Stroke: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention


While many of us consider our pets part of the family, it is important to remember that in some ways, they are very different from us. One of the ways dogs are different from people is how they dispel excess heat. When people are overheated, their skin becomes flushed and they sweat. Dogs, with a few exceptions, wear a hair or fur coat year-round, which makes it more difficult to see if their skin is flushed, and only sweat through the pads of their feet, which are not covered in fur or hair. Instead, dogs regulate their heat by panting. This is actually an effective way of cooling, as it lowers the body temperature while conserving moisture.

However, as many dogs now live in our homes with us (and we enjoy keeping a relatively constant temperature), they don’t have the opportunity to gradually become accustomed to the seasonal weather changes, and so, particularly late spring and early summer, are susceptible to heatstroke, because they overexert themselves.

What is heat stroke?

At its simplest, heat stroke occurs when a dog’s internal temperature exceeds 106F (101-102 is normal) and it is no longer able to regulate its temperature. The rise in the dog’s temperature (heat gain) is greater than its ability to cool itself. While people often think of heat stroke in conjunction with dogs left in cars (which is a very real concern), heat stroke can happen anytime an animal (or person) is exposed to high temperatures, and especially when they become dehydrated.

When heat stroke occurs, the high temperatures cause chemical reactions in the dog’s body, breaking down cells, which leads to dehydration and blood thickening. This thicker blood creates stress on the heart as it pumps blood through the body, and as it continues, leads to blood clotting and tissue death. The first areas affected are the liver, brain, and intestines, and this can happen quite rapidly. Therefore, it is imperative to act quickly to cool your dog if you think it might be exhibiting any of the symptoms listed below.

Symptoms of heatstroke

Your dog may exhibit only a few of the following, so be alert when playing outside in hot weather.

* rapid panting
* hyperventilation (heavy breathing)
* wide eyes
* thick saliva
* dry gums
* weakness
* confusion
* vomiting
* staggering
* bright red tongue
* diarrhea
* bleeding
* pale gums
* coma


If you think your dog might be exhibiting signs of heat stroke, cool the dog, then take him to the veterinarian immediately! This is a life-threatening condition, and your quick response is imperative.

Use whatever means are available to bring down your dog’s temperature: bathe him in cool (not ice cold) water, fan him, return him to an air conditioned building, or sponge the groin, underarms, and tummy areas with cool water. While you’re doing this, wet his tongue, but do not allow him to drink large quantities of water, because it may induce vomiting.

Once the dog’s temperature reaches 103-104F, stop the cooling efforts, as cooling too fast or too much can cause other problems. At this point, you should transport your dog to the vet.


What can you do to prevent your dog from being affected by the heat:

* Never leave your dog unattended in a car. The windows act like a greenhouse, and temperatures can rise to as much as 40F higher than outside temperatures in just a few minutes. Cracking the windows only helps minimally – remember how hot your car is when you return from shopping, even if you leave the windows cracked.
* Always provide access to fresh, clean drinking water. Carry water with you on walks – there are great products available at your local pet store!
* On hot days, restrict activity to mornings and evenings, particularly active exertions such as playing fetch, jogging, and similar.
* Do not muzzle your dog. Muzzles impede dogs from panting, their natural cooling mechanism.
* Avoid areas such as the beach or large stretches of asphalt, which reflect the sun’s heat, and are lacking shaded areas for cooling off.
* Wetting your dog or allowing him to swim on hot days can help, though overexertion can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, even in the water, so be sure to have him take breaks.



About Kristin S Moran

I have worn a lot of hats over the years. Some of my favorite jobs have been: Naturalist at a state park, Co-owner of a pet sitting franchise, and Intern at a conservation not-for-profit organization. I own 3 male cats and a female rottweiler/border collie dog. I have been learning about pet nutrition for the past few years, and have seen vast improvement in my pets' health and that of several clients' pets. Throughout my life, pets have always had a major role. I grew up with cats, and we got our first dog when I was in high school. I've also owned ferrets, rabbits, and a hermit crab. I started out my college career in a pre-veterinary medicine program, but eventually switched to Wildlife Science, earning my bachelor's degree from Purdue University. I have been an interpretive naturalist at several different facilities, including Acadia National Park, Lincoln State Park, Mesker Park Zoo, and Howell Wetlands. I enjoy learning about the natural world and sharing what I've learned with others. I am also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, though I tend to write about that and my other crafty pursuits on other blogs.
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