By Colleen Willms, DVM, DACVECC

beach dogHeat stroke can be a life-threatening condition for anyone, dogs included. Since dogs at play do not comprehend “overdoing it,” it is our job as responsible pet owners to supervise them while playing in the Texas heat.

Heat stroke occurs when the body is incapable of keeping its temperature in a safe range.  Unlike humans who can sweat, animals can’t sweat and get overheated easily.  A dog’s normal body temperature is higher than humans at 100.0–102.5°F.  A dog with moderate heat stroke and a temperature of 104-106°F can recover within an hour if given proper first aid and veterinary care.  Severe heat stroke occurs with a body temperature greater than 106°F and can be deadly, causing kidney, liver and heart problems.  Body temperatures can climb up to 109°F and since brain damage can occur at temperatures above 106°F, it is important to recognize the signs of heat stroke as quickly as possible and seek immediate veterinary attention.

Signs of heat stroke:

  • Rapid breathing/panting
  • Bright red tongue and gums
  • Thick, sticky saliva
  • Depression
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting and diarrhea–sometimes with blood
  • Shock- rapid heart rate;  low blood pressure; poor pulse quality
  • Seizures or coma

Dog risk factors.  Dogs are at an increased risk for heat stroke if they are very young, very old, obese, not conditioned for exercise, not used to being outside for long periods of time, or if they have heart, respiratory or certain neurological diseases.  Brachycephalic refers to dogs with “smooshed in faces.”  Some examples of brachycephalic breeds are: Bulldogs, Boston terriers, Boxers, Lhasa apsos, Pekingese, Pugs and Shih tzus, etc.  Dogs with longer snouts and throats are able to pass air over their tongues via panting, which is an important factor in cooling. It takes so much extra work to move the same amount of air in a “smooshed in face” dog, that airways become inflamed and swollen.  This further exacerbates the upper airway obstruction and leads to more respiratory distress and over-heating.  Under normal circumstances, these dogs can breathe without any difficulty.  It is important to know what the “normal” snorting and breathing noises are for your short-faced dog, so that you can recognize when they are in trouble.  Dogs that have experienced heat stroke in the past are at an increased risk for recurrence.  Finally, dogs on certain medications, like diuretics (i.e. furosemide) are prime heat stroke candidates.

Environmental risk factors: 

  • High temperatures
  • High relative humidity, even at lower temperatures
  • Lack of shade and water
  • Poor ventilation

Treatment.  Seeking veterinary attention quickly is critical, as heat stroke can be fatal.  The main goal of treatment is to reduce the body temperature to a more appropriate level, but to avoid over cooling.

  • Move into the shade or A/C and place a fan on your dog
  • Take a rectal temperature, if possible
  • DO NOT immerse in ice or cold water-this will drop the temperature too quickly
    • A reasonable goal of reducing the temperature to 102.5-103°F is ideal
  • Place cool, water-soaked towels over body
  • Don’t force them to drink, but have fresh, cool water available should they choose to
  • Transport your dog to the closest veterinary clinic
    • They will be given IV fluids to hydrate and stabilize them and frequent temperature checks will be done to assure that the body temperature does not fall below normal

Prevention.  The key to avoid heat stroke in your beloved pet is prevention.  There should be access to water at all times. Avoid intense exercise during the hottest part of the day and avoid places like asphalt or the beach where heat is reflected and there is no shade.   Finally, pets should NEVER be locked in a parked car, even if you are in the shade and plan to be gone for a short time.  The temperature inside a parked car can quickly reach up to 140°F.