As dog owners, we like to think we are always being careful and bad things won’t happen to our dogs.
I remember the first time Gretel got heatstroke. It was scary.
It was a hot day in Seattle so we decided to hang out on the water in hopes of staying cooler. We went paddleboarding for a few hours on the lake by our house.
It was warm but it didn’t feel particularly hot. There was a nice breeze blowing on the water and we occasionally got wet.
When we got home, she seemed unusually tired (lethargic). She was lying on her side resting but her breathing was rapid.
The first thing I did was check inside her mouth. She was warm to the touch and her gums were bright red.
At that time, I didn’t realize how serious the situation was.
I immediately grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, laid her on my chest, laid the ice on her to cool her, and waited.
After about 15 minutes, she started acting and looking normal again.
Knowing what I know now, I should have immediately taken her temperature and potentially taken her to the emergency vet clinic. Luckily, her case must have been mild but things could have gone very differently.
I want to help you protect your dog from heatstroke, and know what you should do if they get it, so I compiled all of my research in this article.
Being knowledgeable about heat stroke in dogs, and vigilantly watching for signs, is the best thing you can do to protect your dog.
It’s important to note that implementing all this information is not a guarantee that your dog won’t develop heatstroke that severely impacts their health (or results in death)
However, it can go a really long way to preventing it.
What is Heat Stroke in Dogs?
Heatstroke in dogs is also referred to as canine hyperthermia.
In the simplest terms, this condition means elevated body temperature above the normal range for a dog.
More specifically, it’s a condition where your dog can no longer regulate its body temperature through their mouth (panting) or paws – the primary way a dog cools themselves.
Their body temperature rises to 2-5 degrees above their baseline body temperature and can’t come down.
Note: a dog’s normal body temperature is 101°F to 102.5°F (38.3°C to 39.2°C) but it’s always good to know what your individual pet’s baseline temperature is.
You can find this out by asking your vet at the next visit or by taking your dog’s temperature yourself with a rectal thermometer.
Full-blown heat stroke occurs when your dog’s body temperature is above 106°F (41°C) – 4-5 °F above baseline – but a dog can start to become hyperthermic with a body temperature of only 103°F (39.4°C).
At a temperature of 107°F to 109°F (41.2°C to 42.8°C), a dog’s organs can start to fail, resulting in death.
Heat Stroke vs. Heat Exhaustion in Dogs
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke in dogs are two stages of the same thing. Both are due to dangerously elevated body temperature.
Heat exhaustion is the first stage when the body temperature is elevated only a couple of degrees above a dog’s normal body temperature.
In this stage, a dog’s own cooling mechanisms, along with quick assistance from you, can usually lower their body temperature to the normal range.
Heat exhaustion happens before heat stroke, so it’s important to recognize when your dog reaches this stage. Heatstroke is largely preventable at this point.
Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature continues to climb and your dog’s temperature-regulating mechanisms are overwhelmed. Their body is no longer able to keep up.
Heatstroke is usually associated with a dog body temperature of 106°F (41°C) or above.
When a dog is experiencing heatstroke, efforts on your part to help lower their body temperature may not work. An emergency vet visit may be imminent.
What Can Cause Your Dog to Get Heat Stroke?
There are many situations that can result in your dog overheating.
Underlying medical conditions can elevate their body temperature to dangerous levels.
The information in this article is for otherwise healthy dogs (without underlying medical conditions) but do be aware of this and take your dog to the vet if you are concerned.
Other things that can cause hyperthermia in dogs is:
- Being left in a hot car
- Walking around the neighborhood when it is too hot
- Doing vigorous exercise – like chasing a ball repeatedly or hiking – when it is too warm (my personal limit for my dogs is around 75°F (29.9°C) and even that can be pushing it depending on other factors).
What Are the Clinical Signs of Heat Stroke in Dogs?
When a dog is in the beginning stages of heatstroke, symptoms may be mild. However, they can quickly progress into a situation that may be deadly for your dog.
That’s why it’s very important to avoid situations if there is any possibility of heatstroke and know the signs well so you can stop whatever you are doing to attend to your dog’s needs.
You’ll want to memorize the signs of heat stroke in dogs so recognizing them becomes second nature.
Besides those listed below, my first clue that Gretel and Summit might be overheating is that the spot between their nose and the hair, on top of their nose, turns bright red. It’s like a little thermometer button.
Some other early warning signs of heatstroke in dogs are:
- Heavy panting with a really long tongue hanging out
- A pulse or heart rate higher than the exertion level warrants
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive drooling
- Bright or dark red gums & tongue
- Lethargy or suddenly plopping down and refusing to move
As the condition progresses in your dog, the signs I mentioned can be present along with:
- Lack of coordination, staggering
- Glazed eyes
- Bloody diarrhea
How to Prevent Heat Stroke in Dogs
The first line of defense should be avoiding high temperatures altogether.
Never leave your dog in a car if it’s hot out or the car is sitting in direct sun. Not even for a few minutes because temperatures inside a vehicle, even if windows are cracked, can skyrocket quickly.
In the summer, exercise your dog in the early morning or evening (in my experience, morning is always the cooler of the two).
If you must exercise your dog during the heat of the day, walk them near a water source where you can keep their fur wet.
You can also have your dog wear a cooling vest or jacket (but you still need a regular water source to re-wet it as it dries out) and/or take frequent breaks in the shade.
Better yet, take your dog swimming (or teach them to swim if they don’t already love the water).
If you can’t do the above, you need to be hypervigilant about watching for and detecting the early warning signs of heatstroke in your dog.
No matter what though, Make sure your dog has access to as much fresh, cool water as they need.
How Deadly is Heat Stroke to a Dog?
If your dog gets heat stroke, it’s a serious situation. How serious?
Deathly serious. You may wonder how many dogs die of heat stroke a year.
Heat stroke can be deadly, so always take it seriously.
The short answer is, “too many”. To me, even one is a tragedy because it’s preventable.
The long answer is it’s complicated because:
- Not every dog that dies of heatstroke is reported
- If a dog had an underlying medical condition that the heatstroke exacerbated, the death may be attributed to the underlying condition as the primary cause
- Annual high temperatures can vary greatly from year-to-year so there isn’t one definite number of cases per year
To give you a rough idea though, from 2018-2019, 78 pets suffered heatstroke and died in a hot car (source).
I’d don’t think it’s absurd to assume that at least that many dogs die of heat stroke the same year and go unreported.
In actuality, the number of dogs that die of hyperthermia in a year may be closer to the 200 mark.
You may also be wondering how fast heat stroke can kill a dog.
If a dog is highly active (like a working dog) and develops heat stroke, it can kill them in 30 minutes if left untreated.
A dog at rest but merely trapped in the heat can die in an hour (source).
How to Treat a Dog with Heat Stroke
The first thing you should do if you suspect your dog has heatstroke is to stop all activity and try to cool them down by giving them water to drink (although most dogs under stress won’t drink it) and sitting in the shade.
You can also wet their fur with cool, NOT cold, water in hopes that the water evaporating will help cool their core body temperature. The best places to put the water are the head, stomach, armpits, and feet.
If you have it available, you can also apply rubbing alcohol to the footpads to dilate pores and increase perspiration (source).
If your dog’s symptoms don’t seem to get better, or they get worse, take them to a veterinarian right away.
A veterinarian may try to control your dog’s body temperature by giving them intravenous fluids. If available, they may also try low-concentration oxygen therapy.
The best, the surest way to prevent heatstroke in your dog is to avoid hot temperatures in the first place.
That’s not always possible though. Sometimes the situation makes it unavoidable (like having to take your dog potty outside in high heat).
Also, more than one dog owner has started a hike in the cooler part of the day and experienced the temperature climbing higher than expected or taking longer than anticipated and getting stuck out in it with their dog.
The second best way to prevent hyperthermia in your dog is to memorize the early warning signs and pay very close attention to your dog’s behavior and physical condition.
While mistakes happen to even the best pet owners, hopefully, the combination of these two things will keep your dog safe and healthy for many years to come.