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Dogs in hot weather - avoiding and treating heatstroke

You can avoid heatstroke by keeping your dog and cat out of the heat and make sure they always have access to shady spaces and drinking water. Never leave your pet in a hot, poorly-ventilated space like a conservatory or a hot car. If you think your pet has heat stroke, move them into the shade and pour cool (not cold!) water on them. You must call your vet for advice. Further advice follows below. 

When our pets overheat, and are unable to cool down, they can develop a life-threatening condition known as heat stroke. We mostly recognise heat stroke in dogs (because we take them outside with us and exercise them), but other pets like cats and rabbits can also suffer from this condition too.

What is heat stroke?

Just like in humans, our pets have an optimal healthy body temperature. In dogs and cats, this is around 38°C. If their temperature rises towards 40-41°C and over, this leads to a whole host of problems within the body manifesting as seizures to organ failure. The warmer your pet becomes, and the longer they remain warm, the more (permanent) damage is done.

Unfortunately, heat stroke is a killer which is why early intervention and prevention are essential to keep your pet safe. Recent studies suggest that the most common causes of heat stroke is due to exercising your dogs in the heat. A dog can overheat within 6 minutes of being exercised, and for some breeds this can literally just be a short stroll.

What causes heat stroke in pets?

There are three main causes of heat stroke in pets. These are:

Exercising in the heat, especially more ‘at risk’ breeds.

  • Generally overheating in warm weather; by being outside in the heat or left in a poorly ventilated room.
  • Being kept in a hot car.
  • Overheating after exercise

Whilst we commonly see warmer weather in the summer months such as July, we know the UK likes to give us heatwaves at other times of the year too.

But it does not have to be a scorching hot day to cause heatstroke in our pets, especially when we are exercising them, (like playing fetch). As pet owners we must remain responsible, sensible, and prioritise their safety over our wanting to spend time with them on warm days. Especially for at-risk breeds (which we will talk about below.)

What does heat stroke look like in dogs?

Initially we are looking for signs of heat stress rather than stroke. This is the initial over heating phase which we can reverse.

When a pet is suffering from heat stress we might see:

  • Panting at rest.
  • Lethargy and not wanting to exercise.

As our pets get progressively warmer and their internal body temperature rises, we may start to see:

  • Salivation
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Incoordination (also known as ataxia.)
  • Seizures
  • Lack of consciousness
  • Dark red gums (or even very pale gums if they start to go into shock.)

What should I do if I suspect my dog has overheated?

The initial treatment for heatstroke in any pet is aimed at cooling your pet down and rehydrating them. If caught early, the heat stress can be reversed with cooling and rehydration. However, the longer your pet is left in the heat, and the longer they go without treatment, the worse the prognosis and outcome.

Get them somewhere shaded and pour lukewarm/cool water on them. Not cold, but cool. (Using cold water constricts their blood vessels making it harder for them to cool down). Concentrate on ankles, groin and under neck (where major blood vessels are close to surface), but not with ice as that can cause shock. 

If they will drink, offer them some water, but be careful they don’t drink too much, too quickly. This can harm their organs.

You can repeat pouring water onto them until you seek veterinary help

You do not need to place cold towel on them as this can trap heat and stop them from cooling down.

If you do not see a rapid result (say in five minutes) call your vet for their advice. In most cases its essential that you seek professional medical help as soon as you can because your pets need to be monitored over a few days due to their risk of organ failure, which manifests days later.

What dogs are more at risk of heat stroke?

Whilst any dog can develop heat stroke, some pets are at higher risk of developing it than others.

Breeds with underlying health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, laryngeal paralysis, and brachycephalic obstructive airway disease are at a higher risk.

Large breeds of dog also carry a higher risk. Interestingly Springer Spaniels and Golden Retrievers also are at a slightly increased risk.

Don’t forget that often the ground temperature can be excessive for dogs and can burn their pads. If you cannot leave the back of your hand on the pavement for a few seconds, it isn’t fair to walk your dogs outside.

Why is keeping my pet in a car so dangerous on a hot day? 

It is unacceptable to leave any pet alone in a car on a warm day, even with the windows open in the shade (this doesn’t really make a difference.) The inside of a car (especially a darker car) heats up exponentially and does not coincide with the outside ambient temperature. At 24°C, within 30 minutes the inside of a car can reach almost 45°C.

If you absolutely do need to travel with your pet in a car, you must supervise them at all times, use air-con, make sure they have access to fresh water, and make multiple stops for fresh air. Please reconsider your journey if your car does not have cooling faciltiies as you must account for long stops in traffic.

Should I still exercise my pet in warm weather?

Take into consideration your specific pet's health and be sensible about what exercise you do on warmer days. Dogs die if they’re kept in hot cars and exercised in the heat. But they wont die if they do not get a decent walk for a few days.

If you need to exercise your pet, keep it calm, and do this early in the morning and later in the evening. Whilst it can seem confusing, letting your dog swim on warmer days can also cause them to overheat if you do it in the full glare of the sun.

Are there other ways to can prevent heatstroke in pets?

Heat stroke is extremely serious and is completely avoidable. Whether you have a dog, or a cat, the advice to prevent heat stroke in pets remains the same.

  • Always make sure they have access to multiple bowls of water.
  • Make sure they have access to shaded areas.
  • It is best to keep them indoors in a well-ventilated cool place.
  • Use cooling mats for them to sit on.
  • Keep them out of direct sun.
  • Do not place pets in poorly ventilated rooms like caravans and conservatories, as they can heat up like a greenhouse.

How can I keep my pet safe in hot weather?

Please be sensible with your pets. All pets need to be kept away from heat, kept somewhere cool and shaded, with access to water. Always keep an eye on them and seek veterinary help immediately if you have concerns about your pet overheating.

It is far better and safer to keep them inside on a warm day than risk them developing heat stroke.

This article is based on one kindly provided by Napo Pet Insurance. The picture was provided by Waggle.