There are no formal statistics on how many dogs in the U.S. die of heatstroke each year, either due to being left in a hot car or other circumstances, but one thing is certain: these deaths can be avoided if we humans just take the right precautions to protect our four-legged friends. While there are other heat-induced illnesses - such as clotting disorders as a result of heatstroke, like disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), and Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV), which is a bloating condition that is considered a surgical emergency, according to Dr. Alisha Selzner of Companion Pet Hospital in Fishkill – heatstroke and heat exhaustion are potential causes of these issues.
“Heatstroke is defined as a state of extreme hyperthermia with a body temperature typically over 105 degrees F. A dog's normal temperature is 100 degrees F to 102.5 degrees F. Heatstroke is considered to be a sudden, progressive, and life-threatening emergency that can lead to injury to the body's organs and even death,” says Dr. Selzner. How can you tell if your dog has heatstroke? “Initial signs of heatstroke in dogs include excessive panting/an increase in breathing rate and effort, increase in heart rate, restlessness, excessive drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, wobbliness on their feet, and lethargy/depression. In more advanced stages of heat stroke, you can also see severe respiratory distress, blue-tinged gums or even dark red gums (due to lack of oxygen in the blood), bruising of the skin and gums, collapse, bloody diarrhea, vomiting with blood present, weak pulses, and neurologic signs including seizures.”
Heatstroke can happen to any dog, though some dogs are more prone to having a reaction than others. For example, dogs that have thick or dark fur, are overweight, are seniors or young pups, dogs that have been excessively exercised, or dogs that are anxious or hyperactive by nature (as they tend to get worked up and this increases their body temperature), are more susceptible. Dr. Selzner notes also that, “Brachycephalic breeds, or dogs with short noses (Pugs, Boston Terriers, Pekingeses, Lhasa Apsos, Bulldogs, etc.) are especially prone to heatstroke due to fact that they genetically have a partial blockage of their airways. Their short nose, narrowed nostrils, narrow trachea or wind-pipe, and long soft palate can all make them more prone to overheating because they tend to pant inefficiently.”
So if you’re afraid your dog has heatstroke, what should you do? Well the first response might be obvious, and that is to consult your veterinarian immediately, especially if your dog’s rectal temperature is over 104 or 105 degrees F. “Although owners can begin to implement cooling methods at home and on the way to the veterinary hospital, heatstroke is a disease process that can impact on the body's organ systems, leading to organ failure and potentially death. Hence, although decreasing the body's temperature is the main initial treatment, due to the life-threatening effects on internal organs, veterinary attention is imperative to maximize the dog's chance of survival,” warns Dr. Selzner. “In addition to cooling the patient to a rectal temperature of 102.5 to 103.5 degrees F, heatstroke patients require intravenous (IV) fluid therapy and close monitoring to manage other problems that arise due to thermal damage to the internal organs, such as sudden kidney failure, liver failure, respiratory collapse, cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), gastrointestinal signs, coagulopathies (blood clotting disorders), seizures, and even sepsis (infection and the presence of associated toxins throughout the body).”
That sounds like quite a process – it’s no wonder you would want to put your dog’s life in the hands of a professional! But is there anything you can do to help your dog on the way to the hospital? Dr. Selzner advises, “As you are making arrangements to bring your dog to the veterinary hospital, you can begin the cooling process at home and continue it on the car ride there. First, move your pet to a cool environment with air-conditioning or a fan. If possible, obtain a rectal temperature and record it. Then, begin to cool the patient's body by spraying lukewarm water on the dog or by draping a cool wet towel over the dog's neck and back. You can also apply cool water to the ear flaps, paw pads, armpits, and groin region. Once the cooling process is started, the owner should transport the patient to the nearest veterinary hospital.”
While it’s imperative that you cool your dog’s temperature down, it’s critically important that you do not overcool her! “DO NOT use ice packs and ice-water - this can lead to shivering which can actually increase the dog's temperature. Additionally, use of ice and ice-water can lead to constriction of the blood vessels in the body, which we want to avoid. Do not try to force your pet to drink water, as we do not want [her] to accidentally aspirate or inhale water into the lungs. That said, if your pet is alert, you may offer a bowl of fresh cool water. Finally, do not leave your pet unattended during this time period. Even if you feel that your pet is doing better and has cooled down, you should still seek immediate veterinary attention for diagnostic tests, additional treatments, and monitoring.”
Being stuck in this “heatbox”, even with the windows cracked, can lead to painful suffering, forcing your dog to expend even additional energy as she tries to claw her way out, to no avail, too often resulting in suffocation. If you doubt this, try sitting yourself in a car, turned off and windows open just a crack, for even 10 minutes. If you’re anything like me, you start to get very warm and uncomfortable in a matter of minutes, feel like you have very little air to breathe, and have to open the door to relieve yourself of the temperature pressure and get a breeze of fresh air! Trust me – I’ve done this before even just waiting at the gas station for my husband to pump gas, and it’s not very fun!! So why would we want to willingly expose our dogs to this discomfort just for the sake of bringing them with us?
If you have errands to run where you cannot take your dog out of the car with you, it’s best to leave your dog at home. At least she will be where there is a free flow of oxygen, air-conditioning or a fan to keep temperatures cool, and where she is more relaxed. Adding undue stress to her by bringing her and then having to leave her in the car while you do what you have to do is just unnecessary and not a very loving act to provide for your best friend.
You may think, well I’ll just leave the air-conditioning on in the car and she’ll be fine, right? WRONG! There have been, in my opinion, way too many cases of cars overheating and the air-conditioning units breaking, leaving the dog in an even worse position – since when many cars overheat they start blowing hot air! If you want to understand some stories of where this went wrong and you’re brave enough, just read THIS story about a police dog in Wisconsin – but have the tissues ready!
I should also mention that it is now punishable by law to leave your animal unattended in a parked car in extreme weather conditions. The laws vary by state (and New York law is still not as punishable as many advocates feel is necessary compared to other states), but you can get the whole list of laws on the Animal Legal & Historial Center website.
Additionally, protect your dog by:
Maria Huntoon, CBCC-KA