Heat Stroke Prevention: Playing it Cool in the Summer

Currently in the northern hemisphere, winter has departed and summer has arrived. This means longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures. For most of us this is a great time to enjoy many outdoor activities including our beloved pets in our fun times. We can “shed” our warm winter clothes, making our adaptation to this climate change more comfortable for us. Our pets, on the other hand, (though most may shed some hair) are still wearing heavier coats than we might want to wear ourselves. Plus, they cannot sweat like us and take advantage of evaporative cooling. This can lead to hyperthermia or heat stroke. Not a good thing for us or our pets. This can be a life-threatening emergency.

When your pet’s core temperature rises above 103 degrees this is considered an abnormal elevation. Body temperature can be elevated due to what is termed as pyrogenic (fever) caused or non-pyrogenic caused hyperthermia. Pyrogenic causes include diseases and infections. Non-pyrogenic causes are outside conditions that lead to increased body temperatures. For sake of this discussion we will concentrate on the non-pyrogenic causes.

Most common conditions that will lead to your pets experiencing heat stroke would include:

  • Confinement and/or poor ventilation such as in an enclosed vehicle
  • Increased humidity
  • Lack of an adequate water supply
  • Your pet not being acclimatized to the hotter temperatures and high humidity
  • Over exertion
  • Possibly, some medications they may be currently taking
  • Pre-existing conditions such as heart disease
  • Being overweight
  • Age
  • Neuromuscular diseases
  • Long hair coats, especially those dark in color

Dogs tend to be more affected than cats, probably due to their lifestyles. Some other factors can increase the risk of overheating such as your dog’s breed (those adorable short-nosed, “scrunched in” face breeds like bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, etc.).

Heat stoke/prostration is a multisystemic disorder affecting multiple body organs and functions and should never be taken lightly. It can affect the kidneys,  cardiovascular system,  nervous system,  gastrointestinal system, liver, immune system, lungs, musculoskeletal system, and clotting mechanisms in the blood. This disorder can be critical and treatment approaches must take all of these systems into account with rapid intervention.

Signs or symptoms of heat stroke in your dog may include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tremors
  • Lack of balance
  • Excessive drooling
  • Respiratory distress
  • Gum color that may appear more red in color than normal
  • Seizures
  • Bloody stools
  • Mental status changes
  • Bruising of the skin
  • Coma
  • Respiratory or cardiac arrest

So, you might be asking, “What do I do if I think my dog is suffering from heat stroke?” Of course prevention is best. However, if your dog is showing signs of this problem, initially have someone contact your veterinarian and let them know you are on the way with your dog. While they are making that call, you should start initial treatment at home. This means cooling your dog down by spraying him/her with room temperature water even before transportation. Evaporation and cooling can be enhanced by using fans, driving with the windows down and/or placing your dog in front of the air conditioning vent. Do not cool with ice. Studies have shown that overall mortality rate is about 50 percent in dogs presented to veterinarians with heat stroke, but survival increases dramatically to almost 100 percent in those dogs that are cooled down by their owner prior to veterinary intervention and seen within less than 90 minutes of initial symptoms. “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!” Maybe not “Lost in Space” but still a dangerous condition that must be treated aggressively and promptly.

While some strokes can be good (“That golfer has a great stroke,” or “Wow, that rower sure has a powerful stroke!”) heat stroke is never good. Summer months should be fun and full of happy events for us and our pet family members. Ensure your pet has plenty of shade, more than adequate amounts of fresh water, don’t encourage overexertion and don’t confine to non-ventilated areas (especially cars and the back of trucks with toppers) when temperatures and/or humidity is high. Let’s all celebrate the “dog days of summer” and fill up our photo albums, discs, and flash drives with only happy times together.

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