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Hot Dogs: Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke in Dogs

As the summer heats up, keep your dog safe. By Dr. Jennifer Deming, DVM, courtesy of Zuke's.

One of the great joys in life for my dog and me is to be able to enjoy the plethora of trails and rivers around southern Colorado. I am hard pressed to find a source of more pure, unadulterated dog joy than letting her relish all of the smells and sights of the local mountain wilderness. I'm sure that many of you and your dogs feel the same way about the abundance of outdoor recreation this time of year. But now that summer is fully upon us and temperatures are climbing all over the country, I am getting more questions about when to worry about overdoing it with our furry friends. Allow me to share some of my more commonly asked questions this time of year.

How hot is too hot?

With the thermostat climbing, a fun day outside can quickly become uncomfortable (and dangerous!) to those wearing full-time fur coats. It likely seems quite logical, but if you are outside and uncomfortable in the heat, than most likely your dog is too. Always be sure to provide plenty of fresh water and shade. Be sure to be cognizant of acclimation as well. In other words, if you were born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, a 90-degree day may feel quite mild. If you were raised in Barrow, Alaska, then that same 90 degrees may feel like the surface of the sun. The same goes for our pets. If you are travelling this summer with your dog and you are used to living and playing in cooler temperatures, a journey south to a warmer and/or more humid climate may pose more of a risk to your pet.

When should I be concerned about my dog?

The main symptoms for heat exhaustion and heat stroke are:

1. Excessive panting
2. Red gums or conjunctiva (the normally light pink part of the eye)
3. Dry mucous membranes (the dog version of "cotton mouth")
4. Lethargy, sluggishness
5. Gastrointestinal upset (vomiting/diarrhea)
6. Hypersalivation (extra drooling)
7. High heart rate (consistently more than 100 beats per minute when dog is not running around)
8. Staggering, stumbling, loss of balance or coordination, changes in normal personality

What should I do if I see any of these signs?

The best thing to do if you see any of these signs is to seek medical care immediately. The longer that a dog's core body temperature is over 104 degrees, the more permanent damage can occur. A normal body temperature is less than 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If you cannot make it to a veterinarian right away, try to encourage your dog to drink water, and attempt to cool his/her body temperature by letting him stand in cool water if some is available. Ice packs applied to the armpit and groin areas can help as well, but don't leave them in place for several minutes at a time. They can actually cause the temperature to swing too far the other direction and cause hypothermia (low body temperature). Rinsing your dog in cool, not cold, water helps to gently reduce body temperature safely. If no water is available, rubbing alcohol applied to the pads of the feet can help lower body temperature too. 

What can happen to my dog if he/she gets heatstroke?

Dogs with untreated (or delayed treatment for) heatstroke can cause some very rapid and very serious problems. To name a few, heatstroke causes clotting problems, kidney failure, seizures/brain damage, heart arrhythmias, multiple organ dysfunction, and eventually death. Yes, it's scary stuff.


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