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Heat Stroke in Dogs

Understanding and Preventing Hyperthermia

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Photo of Dog in Car Photo © Justin Sullivan / Getty images

Hyperthermia is a term describing an elevation in body temperature. This increase typically occurs as a response to a trigger, such as inflammation in the body or a hot environment. When a dog is exposed to high temperatures, heat stroke or heat exhaustion can result. Heat stroke is a very serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Once the signs of heat stroke are detected, there is precious little time before serious damage - or even death - can occur.

Dogs do not sweat through their skin like humans - they release heat primarily by panting and they sweat through the foot pads and nose. If a dog cannot effectively expel heat, the internal body temperature begins to rise. Once the dog's temperature reaches 106°, damage to the body's cellular system and organs may become irreversible. Unfortunately, too many dogs succumb to heat stroke when it could have been avoided. Learn how to recognize the signs of heat stroke and prevent it from happening to your dog.

Signs of Heat Stroke

The following signs may indicate heat stroke in a dog:
  • Increased rectal temperature (over 104° requires action, over 106° is a dire emergency)
  • Vigorous panting
  • Dark red gums
  • Tacky or dry mucus membranes (specifically the gums)
  • Lying down and unwilling (or unable) to get up
  • Collapse and/or loss of consciousness
  • Thick saliva
  • Dizziness or disorientation

What to do if You Suspect Heat Stroke

If you have even the slightest suspicion that your dog is suffering from heat stoke, you must take immediate action.
  1. First, move your dog out of the heat and away from the sun right away.
  2. Begin cooling your dog with cool water. You may place wet rags or washcloths on the foot pads and around the head, but replace them frequently as they warm up. Avoid covering the body with wet towels, as it may trap in heat.
  3. DO NOT use ice or ice water! Extreme cold can cause the blood vessels to constrict, preventing the body's core from cooling and actually causing the internal temperature to further rise. In addition, over-cooling can cause hypothermia, introducing a host of new problems. When the body temperature reaches 103.9°F, stop cooling. At this point, your dog's body should continue cooling on its own.
  4. Offer your dog cool water, but do not force water into your dog's mouth. Try not to let your dog drink excessive amounts at a time.
  5. Call or visit your vet right away - even if your dog seems better. Internal damage might not be obvious to the naked eye, so an exam is necessary (and further testing may be recommended).
Tip: recruit others to help you - ask someone to call the vet while others help you cool your dog.

Preventing Heat Stroke

There are ways you can prevent heat stroke from happening in the first place.
  • NEVER leave your dog alone in the car on a warm day, regardless of whether the windows are open. Even if the weather outside is not extremely hot, the inside of the car acts like an oven - temperatures can rise to dangerously high levels in a matter of minutes.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise on warm days. When outside, opt for shady areas.
  • Keep fresh cool water available at all times.
  • Certain types of dogs are more sensitive to heat - especially obese dogs and brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds, like Pugs and Bulldogs. Use extreme caution when these dogs are exposed to heat.
Some dogs can recover fully from heat stroke if it is caught early enough. Others suffer permanent organ damage and require lifelong treatment. Sadly, many dogs do not survive heat stroke. Prevention is the key to keeping your dog safe during warmer weather.
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