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When sidewalks sizzle: Understanding the dangers of heat stroke in pets.

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Well its that time of year again. Backyard BBQs, beach days, fun in the sun. Being in the veterinary profession many of us can only think “Oh boy, heat stroke season.” During the hotter summer months, the number of heat stroke cases increases dramatically, compared to the winter months, here in the northeast as well as elsewhere. As always, brachycephalic dogs (those with short snouts and wide heads like bulldogs) are much more at risk than other breeds, but that does not exclude other dogs from getting heat stroke. So here are some signs for pet owners and professionals alike to be on the lookout for, that your pet or patient is in danger of heat stroke.

1. Excessive salivation

2. Panting

3. Inability to get comfortable

4. Bright red colored tongue and gums

5. Rectal temp of 105 or more

6. Lack of urine production

7. Bloody diarrhea

So, what should you do if you think your dog is in danger of or suffering from heat stroke? Get them out of the heat. If outside, move them to a shaded area out of the sun. Offer water to drink, as well as you can wet down their entire body. Fur is a great insulator and will hold body heat in. Wetting it down will allow the body to cool as it evaporates, simulating sweating, which dogs can only do very minimally from the pads of their feet. Avoid ice water, as this can cause vasoconstriction and be counterproductive. Do not cause any shivering, as this will drive the body temperature back up. You can also apply a fan to blow lightly on your dog. You want to slowly lower the body temperature to about 103.4, then stop actively cooling. Their temperature may continue to drop, and that is ok. Avoid alcohol and ice packs, as they will also cause vasoconstriction and slow down the cooling process. Seek medical attention.

Heat stroke can be fatal if left untreated. If you are concerned that your pet may be suffering from heat stroke you should seek out a veterinarian immediately.

Heat stroke can cause:

1. Organ failure

2. Shock

3. Cardiac arrest

4. Blood clotting disorders

5. Vomiting blood

6. Bloody diarrhea

7. Black, tarry stools

8. Seizures

9. Drunken gait

10. Muscle tremors

11. Fluid to build up in the brain

12. Unconsciousness

13. Death

Heat stroke doesn’t just occur because its hot outside. Excessive environmental temperature can contribute to heat stroke, however being closed in an unvented space like a car or grooming dryer cage can also cause heat stroke. As well as:

1. Upper airway disease, such as brachycephalic airway syndrome

2. Some poisonous compounds

3. Excessive exercise

4. Underlying disease

5. Anesthesia complications

Risk factors include:

1. Previous history of heat related disease

2. Heat intolerance (it can take 60 days to acclimate to a new climate)

3. Heavy coated dog in a hot geographical location

4. Brachycephalic breeds i.e.: French or English bulldogs, Boston terriers, Brussels griffon, Shih Tzu or boxers to name a few

5. Obesity

6. Age

7. Hyperthyroidism

8. Dehydration

9. Thick, heavy fur coat i.e.: husky’s, newfoundland’s, cockers or golden retrievers

What to expect at the vet.

Your veterinarian will examine your pet to ensure that a normal body temperature has been reached and stabilized. If not, they will continue to cool appropriately. Blood work to ensure no clotting disorders or lasting organ damage has occurred. Diagnostics such as urinalysis, blood work, ultra sound and electrocardiogram may be used. Should any of the complications have occurred they will need to be treated immediately and aggressively. Hospitalization may be required to provide oxygen supplementation, fluids and medications. Depending on the severity of the heat stroke, as well as the reason for occurrence, surgery to correct breathing problems may be necessary, as well as intravenous feedings to provide nutrition and allow the organs time to recover.

So how do we prevent heat stroke?

Be aware. Dogs that have already had a heat stroke episode are at a higher risk of reoccurrence. Know how to cool your dog properly. Avoid taking your pet out during the hottest part of the day or leave them in a spot that may become to hot, such as a sun room, garage or car. Always have water accessible. If you must be outside for an extended period, provide shade for your dog. Remember, if you feel hot, they feel hotter.


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