During the first few warm weeks of summer, we are all eager to get outside, soak up the sun, and enjoy the warmth. Our dogs are just as eager, however, during these first few weeks of hot weather that I have always seen more heat-related injury in dogs than any other time of year. Even though the rest of the summer will reach higher temperatures, it’s the eagerness to get outside and enjoy the reprieve from the long cold winter that leads to over-doing it with our dogs.
Our dogs are excited to stretch their legs, run and play, and are so thrilled to be outside they will ignore their body’s own signals that they need to take a break and find some shade, especially if we continue to run or throw the toy. We have to advocate for our animals. Sometimes that means being the fun police and putting the ball away for a while to protect them from themselves and the sun.
How Dogs Cool Themselves
The only place on a dog’s body that genuinely sweats in the paw pads, that’s not a lot of surface area when you’re running around in a fur coat. Dogs cool themselves by sweating from this restricted surface area and by panting. Panting passes air through the trachea and along the tongue. The tongue engorges to maximize surface area for cooling the blood as it flows through the vessels in the tongue. Knowing how small and ineffective their cooling systems are when compared with their body size and fur coat, it’s no wonder that they are subject to heat stroke and other hot weather-related injuries.
Effects of Heat Stroke in Dogs
Heat stroke in dogs means that their temperature gets so high their body is no longer able to regulate it and it results in damage to the body. This can lead to brain damage, lung distress, and multi-system organ failure. Tragically some of these may happen even if you get to your veterinarian in time and they bring down the body temperature. The best thing you can do for your pup is be aware of the danger and be proactive in preventing hyperthermia.
Preventing Heat Stroke
There are things you can do to prevent heat stroke in dogs, such as limiting periods of activity when it’s warm, ensuring they have access to shade, having water available (for drinking and/or lounging), and acknowledging that some dogs and breeds are more susceptible than others.
First, consider how tired you feel after 60 minutes of activity in the hot sun. How much worse would it be with a coat on? Even conditioned athletes get a half-time break! If you need a reminder, set a timer on your phone, and take a 10-20 minute break in the shade after every 30-40 minutes of activity.
Second, have water available. When you’re out and active, you have water for yourself, so it’s easy to throw a collapsible bowl in a vehicle, backpack, or pocket. If you’re home and don’t live on the water, set up a kid’s paddling pool for your pups to flop and cool off in and ensure that at least part of the yard or dog area is shaded.
Finally, consider your dog’s breed and know that brachycephalics (squish-faced breeds) are more susceptible to heat-related injuries. Brachycephalics’ airway anatomy prevents effective airflow, especially if they are worked up and oral and laryngeal tissues are inflamed. Also, consider your dog’s hair coat; dogs with darker thicker hair coats will heat up faster and take longer to cool down. Knowing that, consider limiting these dogs’ activity periods more than your average dog. Additionally, instead of just a shaded area, consider providing an air conditioned space.
Treating Heat Stroke Dogs
Now, assume the worst case scenario: your dog was active for too long on a hot day and now they have collapsed. They are unable to stop panting, seem not to be responding to you, and won’t even drink water or move to a cooler area. What now?
Blood vessels expand when a body is too warm to dissipate heat, which is part of why skin appears red during intense activity. Do not cover them with ice packs or throw them in cold water! If you cool their extremities too quickly, the vessels in those areas constrict down in response to the cold, sealing heat inside the body and worsening internal organ damage.
If your dog is overheating, get them to the shade or air conditioning immediately, get a fan on them, and start dousing them with cool (NOT COLD) water. Get them drinking if you can, but do not force-feed them water. Force-feeding water can cause aspiration, which will only make the situation worse.
Carefully get a rectal temperature if you can, and get on the road to your veterinarian or your nearest emergency veterinarian right away. If possible, call the veterinarian before you arrive to let them know you’re coming and what is happening with your dog so they can be as prepared as possible to help your animal.
Contact Burns on Paws
A final consideration for hot weather: contact burns from hot surfaces. If you have ever stepped barefoot on a black top, road tar, sandy beach, or sidewalk on a hot day, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Dogs’ paw pads are more resilient than our feet, but they can still get burned. If you are planning an activity with your pup on a hot surface that has been warming in the sun all day, like the sidewalk at a street fair or a long run or bike ride on a roadway, pack your dog some booties. If you’re just planning a short outing on a hot surface, bring them a mat to stand on or splash down some water to cool the surface for their feet. Be attentive to what they’re telling you; maybe the fidgeting isn’t anxiety or a desire to run. Maybe they got the hot foot!
Be Safe & Enjoy the Weather!
Get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather we are having. Especially in Alaska, summer is too short not to enjoy it to the fullest. Take your dog! Throw an extra water bottle or at least a bowl in your pack, grab some bear protection, get out and get active!
Tier 1 Veterinary Medical Center in Palmer is Alaska’s only comprehensive animal hospital. We are available for emergencies, walk-ins, and by appointment. With CT, MRI, and Ultrasound available on-site, our facility provides advanced treatment options for your pet. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.
Dr. Paige Wallace is the Urgent Care Coordinator at Tier 1 Veterinary Medical Center. Born and raised right here in the Mat-Su Valley, Dr. Wallace received her education and veterinary training through her service in the United States Army. She served as a Captain with the 218th Medical Detachment Veterinary Service Support, under the 62nd Medical Brigade. Dr. Wallace has extensive experience treating trauma cases in remote areas and with limited resources, bringing a wealth of knowledge and think-on-your-feet experience to the Tier 1 VMC team.