Recognising and preventing heat stroke in dogs

05 December 2019

It's incredibly important that all dog owners have the knowledge to prevent, recognise and respond to signs of heat stroke.

It could mean the difference between life and death for a dog who isn’t as well-equipped to beat the heat as a human. Dogs pant to keep cool and have very few sweat glands with limited perspiration capacity from paw pads. These physiological cooling mechanisms can quickly become overwhelmed by extreme environmental temperatures or rigorous exercise, which makes dogs vulnerable to developing an acute, progressive and life-threatening condition called heat stroke (hyperthermia).

Heat stroke is characterized by a dangerous rise in core body temperature beyond the normal range (37.9°C to 39.2°C) and can result in thermal damage to tissues and organs. It is a medical emergency and without rapid treatment can lead to permanent debilitation or death. It can take as little as 10-15 minutes for a dog to succumb to heat stroke and mortality rates verge on 50% with most deaths occurring within the first 24 hours. All dogs are at risk but those who are overweight, dark or dense coated, elderly or sick are especially vulnerable.

A good rule of thumb is to place the back of your hand on the ground. If you can’t hold your hand on the ground for more than five seconds, it is too hot for your dog to walk across the surface.

The most common clinical signs of heat stroke in dogs include:

  • Respiratory distress with persistent panting or laboured breathing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea (sometimes with blood)
  • Altered mental state showing inattentiveness, disorientation, distress
  • Unable to stand, or stumbling; weakness, in-coordination or unsteady on feet (ataxia)
  • Brick red or dark purple tongue and gums
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Muscle tremors, seizures, collapse, coma and death

If you suspect your dog may have heat stroke

Immediately remove them from the heat and implement these cooling techniques;

  1. Place dog in full-shade, air-conditioned room or under / in front of a fan.
  2. Wet dog’s coat with tepid tap water. Do not use refrigerated water.
  3. Do not cover the dog in wet towels as this prevents evaporation which is essential for cooling.
  4. Wrap ice packs or frozen goods in damp fabric and apply to the dog’s armpits and groin. Do not place frozen items directly onto skin due to risk of ice burn.
  5. Conscious dogs should be offered small amounts of water to drink. Do not feed ice cubes as the dog may choke on them. Do not allow the dog to guzzle water nor force it to drink.
  6. Call your veterinarian to inform them of the emergency and your imminent arrival at the hospital.
  7. Drive directly to the veterinary hospital with air conditioner switched on high, or windows open.

Studies have shown better survival rates in dogs which are cooled down prior to arrival at the vet hospital as compared with dogs who were not.


Prevention is the best treatment

Keep your dog safe during the hot summer season by following these sun-smart guidelines:

  1. Walk and exercise the dog during the cooler periods of the day such as morning and evening and always carry a supply of drinking water.
  2. On very hot days, wherever possible keep the dog indoors with the air-conditioner or fan switched on.
  3. If left outside ensure the dog has access to all-day shade, multiple non-spill water sources and even a paddle pool if possible.
  4. Avoid walking the dog across hot surfaces like sand, concrete and asphalt.
  5. Never confine the dog to hot humid spaces without shade.
  6. Do not leave the dog in a car on a hot day for any amount of time.