It was the first emergency I ever saw in veterinary medicine. I was fifteen and working in my local vet’s office as his general “right hand man” as he put it. We received a call that a Golden Retriever was coming in for potential heatstroke. Though I remember it was 115 degrees that day, it does not have to be anywhere near that hot for a dog to suffer from heatstroke.
Know the signs of this deadly condition. Just as this Golden’s mom did, please call while on your way to your veterinarian’s office. Even if you are only three minutes away, much work can be done in advance to effectively prep for your overheated loved one.
Signs that your dog is overheated
Panting is one of the earliest and most common signs, so pay attention if your dog is panting excessively when the temperatures have soared. Breathing is usually fast and noisy. You can check their gums to gather more information. Overheating is often associated with sticky gums that aren’t quite as moist as normal. While checking his gums, note the color; they may either be bright red or even purplish-blue.
Soon after, the dog may appear dull or disoriented. They may even collapse or convulse. Vomiting, diarrhea, and internal bleeding (manifesting as red/purple spots on the gums, skin, urine, or feces) may occur. Sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias is even a possibility.
If your dog is just panting and you aren’t sure if he is in danger of overheating, you can attempt to take his temperature. Heat stroke usually occurs at outdoor temperatures of 104 degrees and over unless your pet is in an unventilated place, overweight, extra furry, or suffers from a medical condition that predisposes him to heatstroke. Keep in mind, rectal temperatures are the most accurate way to take your dog’s temperature, however, if they have stool in their rectum, it will be artificially lowered.
What should you do if you suspect your dog is overheated?
Grab your dog, wet him with cool (NOT ICE COLD) water, and head to the veterinarian ASAP! Wrap your dog in a wet towel on the way to the hospital, as lowering the temperature (slowly, not rapidly) is of crucial and timely importance. If your dog shows interest in drinking water, allow him, by all means. If your dog is unconscious, make sure no water can get up his nose or mouth. Call your vet while on your way so they can have a team prepared to act quickly!
What causes heat stroke?
Heat stroke is usually caused by high environmental temperatures, but can be precipitated by several factors, both external and internal within the pet himself. Causes are usually divided into two categories: those that decrease the pet’s ability to disperse excess body heat, and those which increase body temperature.
A poorly ventilated space, sudden exposure to high temperatures, high humidity, and limited water access are all factors that may increase your pet’s chance for heat stroke. Other factors that increase your dog’s chance for overheating include obesity, respiratory disease, thick hair coats or jackets, and extensive periods of exercise, such as racing or canine sports. Breeds with shortened upper respiratory passageways, such as Pugs and English Bulldogs, are also at increased risk. Certain hormonal problems or even a pet that is already suffering from a fever is also at increased risk.
What will the vet do?
When you get to the vet, be prepared for your dog to be whisked to the back. It may be a few moments before a staff member can come speak with you. The staff's ability to work quickly and effectively is important for your dog's survival.
The goals of heat stroke therapy are to safely lower the body temperature, treat shock or other negative consequences if they have occurred, and correct the contributing factors. While at the vet, cool IV fluids will likely be administered and blood work will be run. If your pet is suffering more serious side effects, a breathing tube may need to be placed and artificial ventilation began. Correcting electrolyte imbalances and controlling seizures are also of top importance. Depending on the severity of the heat stroke, hospitalization of multiple days may be required.
Prevention is key!
Proper care must be taken to avoid situations where your pet is at risk for hyperthermia.
No pet should be left in a car on a warm day; cracking windows does not provide adequate ventilation or cooling.
- Pets that are outside on warm days must have access to fresh water and shade.
- Keep the exercising to a minimum on warm days as this is a contributor to overheating.
- Please remember animals that survive heat stroke are more susceptible to repeat occurrences.
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