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Heat stroke in dogs - what signs should you look out for?

Panting is the main way that dogs regulate their body temperature. They cannot regulate their body temperature by sweating because they only produce sweat in areas not covered by fur, such as their pads and nose. Panting enables the blood to cool down as cold air passes over the blood vessels in the mouth. If the surrounding air temperature is too high, this system is not effective. If a dog's body temperature rises above 42°C it can lead to death.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Symptoms of heat stroke

Early signs of heat stress may be subtle and it is important to know what is normal for your dog. In severe cases the dog goes into shock and becomes unconscious. In increasing order of severity, the signs to look out for include:

  • Becoming anxious, barking, whining or trembling
  • Faster and heavier panting than normal
  • Seeking shade or reluctance to move
  • Excessive drooling or increased thirst
  • Increased heart rate
  • Elevated rectal temperature, over 40°C (104°F)
  • Deep red or purple gums that feel dry when touched
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Mental dullness or glassy eyes
  • Weak and wobbly
  • Difficulty breathing and collapse, which may progress to seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Causes of heat stroke

Being trapped in a warm car, or other hot and enclosed space, is the most common cause of heat stroke. You can prevent heat stroke by never leaving your dog in a car in the summer. It can take as little as 15 minutes for a dog to die of heat-related illness. During the summer in the UK the temperature inside a car can reach 56°C (133°F). Dogs can also suffer from heat stroke if they are in the sun for too long without shade, or if they are exercised in warm weather without water and rest periods.

Short-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs are particularly susceptible to heat stroke due to their very narrow respiratory tracts. They also develop nasal congestion, which makes breathing even more difficult. Young puppies, overweight dogs, those with thick fur, heart disease or respiratory problems are also at risk of heat stroke.

What can you do to help your dog?

If a dog shows symptoms of heat stroke it is important to act quickly.

  1. Move the dog to a cool, quiet area.
  2. Actively cool the dog using cold water, such as a bucket and sponge or shower.
  3. Do not submerge the dog’s head in water to prevent aspiration pneumonia.
  4. Cold wet towels can be placed on the stomach, armpits and pads. Refresh them frequently.
  5. Take the dog’s rectal temperature every five minutes, if it is safe to do so, until the temperature is below 39.5°C (103°F). Normal body temperature is around 37.8°C (100°F).
  6. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 it is considered a criminal offence for an owner to leave their dog in a hot car. If you find a dog trapped in a car try to contact the owner first, and then call 999 to alert the police. In an emergency situation, safely break the window, remove the dog and follow the steps above.
  7. After a mild episode of heat stroke you should seek advice from a veterinarian to ensure that your dog has no additional complications.
  8. Important: never give anti-inflammatory medication to a dog with heat stroke as this can cause harm.

Treatment of heat stroke

Whole body cooling is the focus of treatment for heat stroke. Intravenous fluid therapy may also be needed to treat the symptoms of shock and electrolyte imbalances. Blood tests are used to evaluate internal organ function. Dogs that have had heat stroke may need to stay in intensive care for several days until they have stabilised and normal organ function has resumed.

When to see your physical vet

  • If you need to visit a veterinarian you should continue to cool your dog whilst on the way to the clinic. For example, use a cold wet towel and offer plenty of fresh cold water to drink.
  • Call the veterinarian to alert them that you are on the way.
  • In severe cases of heat stroke, rapid veterinary treatment is required - every minute counts!

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