Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion In Dogs

The Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms And Prevention Tips

by Anne-Marie Smith
heat stroke in dogs

Summer is an exciting time of the year for most people. With lots of sunshine and outdoor activities, who wouldn’t enjoy spending time with their loved ones outdoors in the summer months? However, the extremely hot and humid temperature is very dangerous for dogs. Some people engage in all sorts of outdoor summer activities with their dogs, forgetting that these animals don’t have the same natural cooling ability as them.

Dogs can’t regulate their body temperature by sweating through their skin as we do. They have fur all over their skin that significantly reduces the amount of cooling they get when they sweat. Secondly, they have fewer sweat glands than humans. Their two main sweat glands include merocrine and apocrine glands.

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Merocrine glands

Merocrine glands are located in the paw pads, while apocrine glands can be found all over a dog’s body. When it’s hot and sunny, merocrine glands help dogs to produce small amounts of sweat through their pads. Apocrine glands, on the other hand, produce pheromones that dogs use to identify each other and make friends instead of producing sweat to help them stay cool.

Heatstroke is a medical condition that occurs when a dog is unable to expel his own body heat, leading to a rise in internal body temperature beyond the normal and healthy range. Read on to learn the causes, symptoms, risk factors, prevention tips, and what to do when your dog is affected.

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How Exactly Do Dogs Cool Off?

Unfortunately, the small amounts of sweat that dogs produce through their footpads aren’t sufficient to expel their excess body heat. So, how exactly do these pets regulate their body temperature? Mainly through panting, but they can also cool off through vasodilation.

You’ve probably seen your pooch multiple times breathing moderately with his mouth wide open and his tongue hanging outside. This is what’s called panting. When your dog pants, the hot air from his lungs is exchanged with the cool air from outside. This accelerates the evaporation of water from his tongue, upper respiratory tract, and the inside of his mouth. As the water evaporates, it regulates his body temperature, thereby helping him to cool down.

Dogs can also stay cool through vasodilation, but this is a secondary method. Vasodilation simply means the dilation or expansion of the blood vessels. When the temperature is high, a dog’s blood vessels, mostly those in his ears and face dilate and carry warm blood close to the skin surface. This process causes the blood to cool off before it goes back to the heart.

Understanding Heat Stroke And Heat Exhaustion

Most animals, including human beings, are at risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion when exposed to extremely high temperatures. However, dogs are more vulnerable to these conditions. Sure, they have a natural ability to cool off through panting and vasodilation, but these methods alone aren’t enough to protect them from heatstroke and heat exhaustion.

Heatstroke (also known as hyperthermia) is a life-threatening medical condition that occurs when a dog is unable to expel his own body heat, leading to a rise in internal body temperature beyond the normal and healthy range. When your dog’s body temperature reaches above 106° Fahrenheit, it can result in serious damage to his body organs (like the brain), or even death if he’s not attended to promptly by the vet.

This is a condition that can be avoided if you pay close attention to your pooch when spending time outside in the sun, and act fast to save his life when you see the warning signs.

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Three Common Causes Of Heat Stroke In Dogs

There are several possible causes of heatstroke in dogs, but we’ll look at the three main ones below:

#1 Leaving Your Dog In A Car Without Proper Ventilation

Cars are literally death traps for dogs when the windows are all rolled up. This is why experts advise dog owners not to leave their pets in the car without sufficient ventilation. Even when the car is parked in a shaded area, the temperature inside can reach up to 90° Fahrenheit or higher when the outside temperature is only 78° Fahrenheit.

It’s even worse when you park your car in the sun, as the indoor temperature can rise up to 160° Fahrenheit within a few minutes. Leaving your dog in such a car increases his body temperature considerably, increasing his risk of suffering from heatstroke.

#2 Spending Time Outside In The Sun Without Water Or Shade

This is another common cause of heatstroke in dogs. Leaving your furry friend outside in the hot sun either sleeping or playing without access to drinking water or shade isn’t advisable at all. The same applies to exercise with him when the sun is high and hot.

#3 Exposure To Heat From A Hair Dryer For An Extended Period

Your pooch is also at risk of getting heatstroke if he’s exposed to the heat coming from a hairdryer for an extended period of time. So, you might want to keep him away from you every time you’re drying your hair.

Dogs That Have A Higher Risk Of Getting Heat Stroke

Though all dogs can experience heat stroke, the following groups are particularly at a higher risk:

  • Short-nosed dogs – These dogs have restricted airways and poor panting mechanisms, which makes them more vulnerable to heatstroke even in moderate heat. Examples include bulldogs, Boxers, Pugs, Boston terriers, and Shih Tzu.
  • Dogs that originated from cold climates like Newfoundland, Alaskan Malamute, Keeshond, Siberian Husky, and Saint Bernard also have a more difficult time adjusting to high temperatures.
  • Senior and overweight dogs – These two groups of dogs are also more sensitive to hot weather, and have a harder time regulating their body temperature.

Symptoms Of Heat Exhaustion And Heat Stroke In Dogs

Heat exhaustion is very common in dogs. It happens when your dog’s body temperature is between 104° and 106° Fahrenheit. A dog suffering from heat exhaustion will try to cool himself by panting. Some of the early signs of heat exhaustion you should look out for are rapid breathing, increased panting, fatigue, staggering, bright red gums and tongue, and inability to follow commands.

When your canine companion is unable to release excess body heat, and his body temperature rises beyond 106° Fahrenheit, he can develop heatstroke very quickly. Here are the most common signs of heatstroke in dogs:

  • Elevated body temperature (temperature above 106° Fahrenheit)
  • Excessive panting
  • Dizziness
  • Dark red gums
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Shaking
  • Thick sticky saliva
  • Bloody diarrhea and vomiting
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness

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What To Do If Your Dog Shows Signs Of Heat Stroke

If your dog is showing any of the above symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, you need to take action immediately by bringing him to the closest veterinary clinic. If you have someone else with you at that time, let him or her drive the car to the clinic while you attempt to lower your canine companion’s body temperature. Here’s a 7-step guide on how to do it safely:

  1. The first step is to move your dog from the hot and humid place into a cool area with lots of shade and free air circulation.
  2. Next, provide him with small amounts of cool water to drink. However, be careful not to force the water into his mouth or let him drink too much water as this might trigger vomiting.
  3. Take his rectal body temperature and continue rechecking every five minutes to avoid overcooling.
  4. Start cooling your pet’s body using cool water. Dip either clean towels or washcloths in the cool water, squeeze them a little bit, and place them on different parts of his body i.e. the armpits, head, and abdomen. If the towels warm up, replace them with cool ones as needed. You can also use a fan to aid the cooling process.
  5. Be careful not to cover your dog’s entire body with wet washcloths and towels as this can cause the body heat to be trapped inside. Also, avoid giving him extremely cold water to drink or using ice to cool his body, as they can cause over-cooling (hypothermia).
  6. Stop cooling once his temperature reads 103.9°F. The body will continue cooling on its own from this point.
  7. When you arrive at the clinic, make sure the vet examines your dog as soon as possible. Even if he seems to be doing fine, it’s still necessary to have him checked properly. If there are internal damages caused by the heatstroke, the vet will prescribe the best treatment plan to help your dog get well.

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Preventing Heat Stroke In Dogs

Despite heat stroke being a life-threatening health condition, there are several things you can do to protect your dog from getting it in the first place. Here are some useful tips worth trying:

#1 Never Leave Your Dog Locked In A Car Without Proper Ventilation

If you have a habit of riding with your dog while running errands, always remember to turn on your A/C before leaving him in the parked car. This is mainly because a car’s internal temperature can rise to dangerous levels very quickly when the windows are all rolled up, and there’s no proper ventilation. Such an environment is neither safe nor comfortable for your dog.

On the same note, letting your dog travel in the back of your truck in the hot sun isn’t advisable either. If the surface of the truck feels too hot and uncomfortable when you sit on it with your bare butt or stand on it with your bare feet, then your dog will probably feel the same way. Therefore, if you have to travel with him, let him sit on a surface that doesn’t absorb heat, or better yet, leave him at home.

#2 Provide Lots Of Cool Drinking Water

Another simple way of keeping heat stroke at bay is by making sure that your dog has access to lots of clean and fresh drinking water. Store the water in a shady location to ensure it remains cool at all times.

If you plan to go to the park or somewhere else outdoors, carry lots of drinking water to keep you and your dog hydrated. Frozen dog treats such as frozen dog popsicles and ice cream can also help your pet stay cool during summer.

#3 Provide Shelter From The Sun

Prolonged exposure to the hot sun leads to sunburns, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. It’s, therefore, a good idea to prepare a cool, shady shelter for your pooch where he can relax after sunbathing and playing outdoors.

You’re probably wondering why you can’t just use a doggie sunscreen to protect your pet from the harmful effects of the sun. Well, sunscreen is good, but it doesn’t provide protection against heatstroke. The same thing applies to shade from trees.

It’s better to provide your dog with an actual structure with sufficient shade. This can be a dog house, a cooling dog bed, an open-air canopy, or your home. Just make sure that whatever you choose for your dog is spacious, cool, and well-ventilated.

#4 Exercise Your Dog Very Early In The Morning Or Late In The Evening

Lastly, it’s never a good idea to go for exercise when it’s hot and sunny. The pavements will most likely be too hot for your dog to walk on, but most importantly, such hot temperatures increase your pet’s risk of getting heatstroke. So, consider engaging in outdoor exercises with your dog very early in the morning or late in the evening. Don’t forget to carry lots of drinking water and take breaks under a shade as needed.

Final Thoughts

As you enjoy the warm summer weather, don’t forget to keep a close eye on your dog while you’re outdoors. Remember that prevention is the best way to keep your pet safe from heatstroke. But if your dog is exhibiting signs of heatstroke, make the necessary adjustments to lower his body temperature gradually, and then take him to the vet for a proper checkup.

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