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Heat Stroke in Dogs

heat stroke in dogs


According to PETA, 114 animal companions have suffered heat-related deaths since 2018. This number represents the reported cases only, so figures are likely significantly higher.

Although these fatal cases typically involve a hot car, soaring summer temperatures can place dogs at risk, regardless of the situation. Heat exhaustion in dogs can lead to serious complications, including cardiac arrest and heat stroke.

Understanding the warning signs and associated risk factors can make all the difference. In fact, being aware of the seriousness of heat stroke in dogs could save a life.

What Is Heat Stroke in Dogs?

Heat stroke is the term used for hyperthermia, which means elevated body temperature. The normal body temperature for dogs is between 101°F and 102.5°F. Once a dog’s body temperature exceeds 103°F, it is considered to be abnormal.

Heat stroke in dogs is typically associated with body temperatures above 105.8°F, occurring without previous signs of illness. By the time a dog’s body temperature reaches 107°F to 109°F, they face the risk of fatal organ failure.

Remember, dogs do not sweat like humans do. While they do have a small number of sweat glands in their footpads, to regulate their body temperature, they must pant. While panting is normal, heavy, excessive panting is not.

What Causes Heat Stroke in Dogs?

The most common cause of heat stroke in dogs is when owners leave their dogs in a hot car without adequate ventilation. In this case, a dog’s body temperature can increase within a matter of minutes, placing immense stress on their internal systems.

Other causes include:

  • Leaving a dog in a yard without shade or water on a hot day
  • Excessive exercise on hot days (i.e. breeds who enjoy constant playtime should be closely monitored, including Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds)
  • Exposure to any hot environment, especially among at-risk breeds

As reported in a 2017 review, changes in global weather patterns and climate have led to an increased number of deaths related to heat stroke. Since humans share their homes and lifestyle habits with their dogs, veterinary medicine anticipates a similar rise among canines.

Which Dogs Are Prone to Heat Stroke?

There are a number of breeds that are prone to heat stroke, particularly those with a restricted airway. These are known as brachycephalic breeds, meaning those that are flat-faced. For example, bulldogs, boxers, and pugs. These breeds may suffer from heat stroke even when the temperature and humidity levels are only moderately elevated.

An elevated risk also applies to dogs with thick fur, short noses, or those that suffer from select medical conditions, such as obesity or laryngeal paralysis.

A study published in the Journal of Veterinary International Medicine, also found that among the 54 dogs diagnosed with naturally occurring heat stroke, the average body weight was 31 kg. This means that large breed dogs likely face a higher susceptibility to heat stress.

Complications Associated with Heat Stroke in Dogs

Heat stroke in dogs is a highly fatal syndrome. By the time a dog’s temperature has increased to 106°F or higher, central nervous system dysfunction will result.

Under normal conditions, more than 70 percent of a dog’s total body heat is dissipated through convection and radiation. Once temperatures rise, a dog’s ability to cool their core temperature through the skin diminishes. At this point, panting becomes the major mechanism to dissipate excess body heat.

Unfortunately, when environmental temperatures and relative humidity increase further, panting also becomes less effective. At this point, dogs face an increased risk of cardiac arrest, cellular injury, organ damage, renal failure, enzyme destruction, and more.

For example, clinical heat stroke can cause neurological abnormalities, including coma (40 percent of cases), seizures (35 percent of cases), and stupor (33 percent of cases).

Despite early body cooling, approximately 50 percent of cases are fatal. Death can be rapid, occurring in an hour or so — and among working dogs, heat stroke may occur in as little as 30 minutes. However, death generally occurs within the first 24 hours due to organ failure.

Identifying and Treating Heat Stroke in Dogs

Dog owners often bring patients to a veterinarian after noticing potential signs of heat stroke. This warning signs may include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Hypersalivation
  • Listlessness
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Muscle tremors
  • Collapse
  • Ataxia
  • Seizures

A veterinarian will take the dog’s temperature to determine the best course of action. Although other tests may be administered throughout the dog’s initial exam, if heat stroke is suspected, treatment will need to begin immediately.

The first step will be to cool the body in order to prevent organ damage. This may be achieved by using towel-covered ice packs, fans, and cooling mats. Begin cooling the affected dog while you or someone else calls a veterinary.

In an emergency situation, do not douse a dog with cold water, as this can promote shock. Cool water is recommended and if possible, once wet, place the dog in front of a fan. Encourage them to drink small amounts of water if capable.

Continue to lightly splash the dog with cool water until their breathing begins to settle. At this point, it is critical to take the dog to the nearest available veterinarian, as they may be facing a life or death situation at this point.

Even if a dog owner manages to cool their dog down, reducing its temperature, irreversible damage may have already occurred internally. A veterinarian will be able to better identify potential secondary conditions and if further treatment is required.

For example, following a heat stroke, a dog may suffer from abnormal clotting, significant changes in blood pressure, kidney failure, or other symptoms that require acute, or in some cases, long-term treatment.

When it comes to heat stroke, prevention is critical. Take extra caution in hot and humid conditions, especially in relation to select breeds and those with airway diseases. While traveling, make sure that dogs are kept in crates or areas with good ventilation; and while outdoors, ensure access to shade and plenty of water.

In a life or death situation, the cost of care can quickly add up. To ensure your dog is protected in an emergency situation get coverage today!

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