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When a dog is engaged in running or other vigorous exercise its body temperature rises, just as it does in a human. When the environmental temperature is equal to or higher than the dog's normal body temperature (99.5 to 102.5 F) the heat dissipation process can become overwhelmed, and hyperthermia and heat stroke usually develop. At temperatures greater than 109 F, failure of vital organs, and consequently death, can occur.
Heat stroke is caused by extremely high body temperature (rectal temperature of 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit), which leads to nervous system abnormalities. If you suspect heatstroke check the dog’s temperature rectally. A dog's normal body temperature is higher than that of a human (99.5 to 102.5 F as compared to 98.6 F). If the dog’s temperature is over 105 F, remove the dog to a shady or cooled spot immediately and begin lowering his body temperature by immersing him in cool water. Then take your dog to your veterinarian, if possible call ahead so the vet can be prepared for your arrival. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency and immediate action must be taken to lower the dog's body temperature and lessen the organ damage that may occur.
Heat exhaustion is less serious than heat stroke and generally follows a period of heavy excercise in intense heat, usually developes more slowly than heat stroke and exibits mildly increased temperature (less than 105 F) and may only require rest, a fan to increase air circulation, fresh water to drink and careful observation. Even though heat exhaustion is less severe than heat stroke, the treatment is the same: lower the dog's body temperature with cool water, then take the dog to your vet.
Except for the body temperature the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion are basically the same. Heat stroke is more severe than heat exhaustion. The dog may experience some or all of the following signs:
excessive panting or noisy breathing
warm, dry skin
bright red mucous membranes (gums, conjunctiva of the eyes)
extremely high fever (105 F degrees or higher indicates heat stroke)
lethargy or unusual stillness
weakness or loss of muscle control
convulsions, tremors or seizures
If your dog suffers a heat stroke or heat exhaustion the fastest way to bring down the body temperature is to immerse the dog in cool water (not ice water). At home the best method is to place the dog in the bathtub and let the cool water cover his body. The second best method is to spray the dog with the water hose. If you are away from home look around for a water fountain, pond or even a swimming pool to immerse the dog in, or look around to see if there is an outside faucet nearby. If there is no way to immerse or spray your dog with water, use a towel (or several if possible) soaked in cool water to help lower the body temperature. If possible turn a fan on so the air can blow on the dog. Ice packs rubbed on the head and neck may also help, but do not leave the ice pack in touch with any one area of the dog's skin for very long at a time because the intense cold may cause skin damage. Because heat stroke is life-threatening; get your dog to the veterinary clinic as soon as possible after lowering his temperature. Only your vet can diagnose the extent of the physical damage suffered by the dog.
Dogs at Risk
Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can happen quite suddenly, sometimes in only a few minutes, especially with dogs that live mainly indoors who have not had time to acclimate to the changing seasons. Some breeds are more susceptable due to their physical conformation; breeds with wide, short heads like pugs, English Bulldogs, Boston Terriers and Shar Peis; breeds with a heavy double coat like Chow Chows and Pomeranians; breeds that were bred for a life in a colder climate like Malamutes, Hushies, Newfoundlands and American Eskimo Dogs. While any dog can suffer heat related illnesses the following dogs are at greater risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion:
older dogs (large breed dogs over 7 years of age, small breed dogs over 14 years of age)
dogs that are overexerted during exercise
dogs that are ill or receiving certain medications
dogs with airway obstructive diseases
dogs with pre-existing fever
dogs that are dehydrated
dogs with heart disease
dogs with short legs (the closer to the pavement, the higher the temp)
dogs with poor circulation due to cardiovascular or other underlying disease
Fortunately heat stroke and heat exhaustion are easy to prevent with careful planning and perhaps a few simple changes in your dog's daily schedule.
Place a thermometer outdoors where you can read it. A good rule of thumb is if the temperature is uncomfortable for you it will be uncomfortable for your dog.
Minimize your dog’s activity on hot days, especially when it is both hot and humid. Never take your dog out when he has a fever or appears sick.
Know your dog's body language and watch for signs of heat related stress. Take prompt action to cool your dog as soon as any signs are evident.
Limit sun exposure during the hours of 11 AM to 3 PM on hot days. If you can't avoid midday walks keep them to a minimum.
Walk or exercise your dog in the morning or evening when it is cooler.
Don't tie your dog up in the sun or make him stand on the street in hot weather. Dogs perspire through their foot pads, so the longer he is on the hot pavement, the less able he is to cool down. Also hot pavement can burn your dog's paws and dogs can become sunburned.
Keep your dog in a comfortable environment (air-conditioned room or partially open windows with a breeze) during extremely hot weather.
NEVER leave your dog in a car, even with the windows rolled down, for any reason at any time. The sun shining on the metal will quickly turn the car into an oven. Even if you find a shady place to park, don't forget that as the sun passes the position of the shade changes. Leaving dogs in a car during warm weather is the most common cause of heat stroke.
Provide your dog with plenty of fresh water and plenty of shade. Take extra care with puppies and older dogs.
If possible, allow your dog to adjust gradually to high temperatures. Heat related illnesses are more common in the spring when the dog has not had sufficient time to adjust to the warmer temperatures.
If you travel with your dog to a warmer climate, allow your dog several days to adjust before allowing any vigorous exercise.
When travelling do not leave your dog in the car more than a few minutes. Stopping for a meal in a restaurant may take too long as far as leaving a dog in the car is concerned. It's better to go through a drive-through and park and eat in the car with the AC on. If you decide to eat in, leave the air conditioner on - but make sure your dog is properly crated or restrained so he cannot get to the front seat. Park (preferably in a shaded spot) where you can watch your car and always take an extra set of keys (door and ignition) with you. Don't forget to take a couple of gallon jugs filled with water so your dog will have plenty of fresh water to drink.