Heat Exhaustion/Stroke in Dogs

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photo credit Mel Elias

 

This is general information only gathered from various resources and is not intended as veterinary advice.  Please consult a veterinarian if you have concerns about the health of your dog. 

Dogs that are at higher risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke include breeds with shorter snouts (e.g. Shih Tzus, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs) and those with weaker bodies like older dogs, young puppies, and ill dogs.

Dogs cool themselves by panting to maintain their normal body temperature (101 to 102.5 F ; 38 to 39 C). Dogs can sweat through their noses and pads but this doesn’t do much to cool them. Overheating can cause severe tissue damage in minutes, affecting important organs like the brain, kidneys, liver, and the digestive system.

Heatstroke occurs when the dog’s temperature reaches 109 F (42.8 C) or above.

Symptoms can include:

  • Heavy panting (often accompanied by a refusal to drink)
  • spoon-shaped tongue can be an early sign of dog overheating
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Vomiting and bloody diarrhea
  • Bright or dark red tongue, gums
  • Staggering
  • Elevated body temperature (104ºF and up)
  • Weakness, collapse
  • Increased pulse and heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Excessive drooling
  • Unconsciousness

What to do:

Move dog out of heat and to the shade or air conditioning. Keep offering water. Sometimes dogs are panting too heavily to want to pause for a drink, but keep it available for when the dog wants it.

If the dog can stand and is conscious,

  • give small drinks of water (too much too fast can cause vomiting)
  • Take temperature. If the dog is 104 F (40 C) or lower, continue to monitor temperature
  • contact vet for further instructions even if dog seems recovered

If the dog cannot stand, seems unresponsive, or if the dog is having seizures:

  • confirm the dog is breathing it has a heartbeat
  • stay with dog (don’t try to immobilize a dog having seizures, just supervise to keep the area around the dog clear to avoid injury to the dog and anyone nearby; time the seizure and observe details that your vet may ask you about)
  • notify vet that you are bringing in the dog
  • begin to cool the dog gradually with COOL water (NOT COLD water) by placing wet towels or gently pouring COOL (NOT COLD) water on belly area, back of head and the underside of neck. Do not pour water into dog’s mouth.
  • DO NOT PUT DOG IN A POOL OR TUB OF COLD WATER
  • Take dog’s temperature. If it is at 104 F (40 C) or lower, STOP THE COOLING PROCESS (to avoid risk of blood clotting or temperature dropping too low)
  • Take dog to vet ASAP even if the dog seems to be getting better

PREVENTING HEAT EXHAUSTION & HEATSTROKE:

  • Provide LOTS of fresh, clean water at all times.
  • On warm days, dogs outside should have access to shade.
  • There is mixed opinion on the effects of “summer haircuts” (not suitable for all dogs). It has been suggested that in order to protect the dog’s skin from the sun, the dog’s fur should be trimmed no shorter than an inch (a few centimetres).
  • Exercise dogs during the coolest parts of the day. Stay in the shade when possible.
  • 32 C or hotter, dog should be kept indoors.
  • Limit exercise or play sessions; keep them short; take lots of breaks to cool down.
  • The heat from the concrete or asphalt can overheat your dog (and burn paws).
  • Never put dog in a hot vehicle (parked or being driven). It’s better to leave the dog at home where it’s cool and there is fresh water to drink.
  • Cooling Vests for dogs may be an option. The Whole Dog Journal shares some feedback on these vests (halfway through the article).

Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class.