Hot weather tips for pets: What you need to know about heat stroke

This recent spell of hot sunny weather may be enjoyable for humans, but for pets, it can be stressful and dangerous.

The risk to dogs left in cars on sunny days is well known: everybody has heard the news reports of dogs dying after being left alone in cars for surprisingly short periods.

It’s less well known that there are serious risks whenever a dog is left in an enclosed space with no shade or no water on a sunny day. The back garden can be a dangerous place if care is not taken to attend to the dog’s needs. Taking a dog for a walk can also be unexpectedly risky: the internal heat produced by muscular effort adds to the high environmental temperature, with heat stroke commonly following.

Why are dogs so susceptible to overheating?

The main problem is that they cannot sweat like humans. They do have sweat glands, but only in the pads of their feet, and these contribute more to scent marking than to heat loss.

The most important heat-losing method for dogs is panting. The breathing becomes rapid and short (up to 400 breaths per minute), the mouth is opened and the tongue becomes enlarged as its blood supply is increased. The movement of air over the tongue causes evaporation of water from its surface, carrying heat out of the body.

Panting can be an effective way of losing heat, but it uses large amounts of water, which is why it’s essential that dogs have access to plenty of fresh water in hot weather. And if the surrounding environmental temperature is hot (eg in an enclosed space), panting does not work well at all, and dogs begin to suffer the serious consequences of overheating.

Heat Stroke

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of heat stroke, so that affected animals can be identified and treated as soon as possible. You’d think it would be obvious, but if an owner doesn’t link a situation with the risk of overheating, people can be fooled. An example is when dogs are exercised in the sun. If the animal becomes tired and slow while out on a walk, owners are often slow to realise that overheating can be the cause.

Signs of heat stroke

  • The most obvious signs of heat stroke are panting and dullness.
  • Affected animals stand still, looking anxious, panting rapidly, and unable to do anything else.
  • They feel hot to the touch and the body temperature may be over 40’C (104’F), and up to 44’C (109’F).

If a dog is not removed from the situation, the body temperature will continue to rise until the dog collapses. Vomiting and diarrhoea follow, and the animal becomes unconscious and will often die.

First aid for heat stroke

Rapid first aid on the spot can be life saving. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Remove the animal from the hot environment
    Get into the shade and out of the sun.
  2. If possible, immerse the dog in a bath of cold water.
    If this cannot be done, soak the animal with cold water, using a bucket or a hosepipe. Massage the skin vigorously, flexing and extending the legs to stimulate the circulation, getting cooled blood flowing all around the body.
  3. On-the-spot cooling like this should be continued for around ten minutes, and then the animal should be taken to the vet: there can be long term adverse consequences from heat stroke (such as kidney failure) and intensive treatment such as intravenous fluids can be life saving.

Ten simple tips for keeping pets cool

  1. Never leave any animal alone in a car, even for what you think is going to be “a few minutes”
  2. Keep your pet cool during car journeys as much as you can e.g. air conditioning, windows open for fresh air. If on a long journey, stop every half hour to check that your pet is OK.
  3. Make sure your pet always has a fresh supply of cool drinking water
  4. Never leave any animal – dog, cat, rabbit or guinea pig – in an enclosed sunny place with no shade.
  5. Give long haired animals -dogs and cats – a short clip if they have long hair.
  6. Walk your dog early in the morning or late in the evening rather than in the full heat of the day.
  7. Consider taking your dog for a swim rather than the usual walk.
  8. Feed your pet 10% less food than normal: the digestive processes generate heat.
  9. For the same reason, feed your pet at cooler times of the day i.e. morning and evening.
  10. Carry a supply of water and a drinking bowl with you whenever you are out with your pet, so that you can offer regular top ups throughout the day.

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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