Every year, thousands of dogs suffer from heat stroke, which is defined as the elevation of body temperature above normal levels due to the production of excessive heat, exposure to excessive ambient temperatures or failure of the body properly to lose heat. Heat stroke is not the same as “having a fever.” Heat stroke, also called non-pyrogenic (non-fever-based) hyperthermia, occurs when the animal’s heat-dissipating mechanisms cannot accommodate excessive heat. In many cases, owners are not aware that their dogs are developing this condition until it is too late to reverse the damage. Immediate emergency medical treatment is necessary to prevent organ damage, and death. Early recognition of the common signs of heat stroke is critical to saving the dog’s life.
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
The initial symptoms of heat stroke in dogs are characterized by unanticipated restlessness. They include physical signs such as excessive or fluctuating panting, which may start, stop and then start again. Other physical signs are excessive drooling (hypersalivation), foaming at the mouth, dry tacky gums and labored or difficult breathing (dyspnea). Among common behavioral changes are agitation, whining, barking and other signs of anxiety. As the dog’s core body temperature becomes dangerously elevated (called hyperthermia), the initial signs normally progress to include vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, lack of muscular coordination (ataxia), very red gums and uncontrolled tremors. In the end stages of heat stroke, a dog will become listless, dull, weak and recumbent. It may try to move to cool places but be unable to rise, will have increased difficulty breathing and ultimately will have seizures, collapse, lapse into a coma and die.
Very young and older dogs are at higher risk of heat stroke. Brachycephalic breeds, obese animals and long haired and dark-colored dogs are also predisposed. Dogs with hyperthyroidism, cardiopulmonary disease or thick hair coats are also at increased risk of developing heat stroke. If you notice these signs in your dog, take your dog to a veterinary clinic immediately.
What dogs are at risk?
Dogs can be in danger from experiencing a heat stroke if they are acclimating to hot weather, confined in a hot space, or if they have worked or played too much without cooling down periods. Sadly this condition is commonly seen in dogs, especially in dogs that live in hot and humid climates. Dogs are able to pant to help control inner temperatures, but dogs are unable to sweat. In the case of a heat stroke, panting is not enough to cool the body down.
A heat stroke in dogs can develop into a potentially deadly situation in as little as 20 minutes. In this type of instance the dog is normally in a closed atmosphere, such as a car, where the temperature steadily climbs. In some instances a heat stroke can take hours to develop into a deadly situation. These cases usually involve dogs that are playing outdoors in the heat or dogs that are older or overweight and trying to acclimate to higher temperatures than they are used to.
To protect your dog from a heat stroke, take the time to learn the signs and symptoms of heat stroke in dogs. Always ensure that your dog has access to water and shade in hot temperatures, and never leave your dog in a hot car even if it is only for “a few minutes”.
Treating Heat Stroke
Heat stroke in dogs can quickly turn deadly if not treated immediately and aggressively. Successful treatment requires intensive emergency care at a veterinary clinic. The therapeutic goals are to lower the dog’s core body temperature to a normal range and to identify and resolve the underlying cause of the condition. This may be as simple as removing the dog from the source of excessive environmental heat, but this is not always easy to do. Most affected dogs will require inpatient hospitalization and intensive care for at least several days, until their temperature and clinical signs are stabilized. Again, early recognition is the key to treatment success.