At this time of year, and all year round for some breeds, it’s important to know the risks of heatstroke and the signs and symptoms to look out for. It’s also important to know exactly what to do if you see your dog in heat stress/heatstroke.
Heatstroke is a very serious and often fatal complication of a pet’s inability to cool themselves effectively or rapidly enough. It can come about through exposure to high temperatures, high humidity, or through excessive exercise. Numerous other risk factors for heatstroke have been identified, including obesity, heart disease, upper airway abnormalities (e.g. brachycephlic breeds like pugs and all types of bulldogs), neurological disorders, body weight >15 kg, lack of environmental acclimatization and fitness, and confinement with poor ventilation (the classic “locked in the car” scenario). Animals that have previously suffered from of heatstroke will be at an increased risk of another episode, as it is thought that the temperature regulation centre is altered during heatstroke. For some reason, Labrador retrievers and Labradors are breeds that are predisposed to heatstroke.
The effects of heatstroke are many and very varied, effecting the gastrointestinal system, the brain and central nervous system, the kidneys, the heart and circulatory system, the lungs and respiratory system, and the clotting system. As you can imagine, this wide-ranging devastation can lead to very varied signs and symptoms. The most common signs include collapse, increased breathing rate and effort, increased breathing noise, spontaneous bleeding (e.g. bruising, vomiting blood, bloody diarrhoea, etc.), dullness or disorientation, drooling, and coma. In one study, 35% of heatstroke victims experienced seizures at or before presentation to a vet clinic. Your pet can also have a lower than normal body temperature by the time they are found, with cold limbs and pale pads. Once a certain degree of thermal damage has been done to the body’s cells, the damage is self-perpetuating and difficult to treat/stop.
So… what do you do if your loved one has signs of heatstroke? Call your vet and get them some help. DO NOT cover them in a wet towel, the water heats with their body temperature, acts like an insulating layer, and keeps them HOT! If you have hand sanitizer gel, you can put this on their paw pads and ears, as this will evaporate and cool them. Once at the vets, your pet will need emergency medical treatment, likely including oxygen and intravenous fluids (a “drip”). They will need tests run to see how far down the “rabbit hole” their body has gone, and how much damage has been done already. This will assist in treatment decisions and judging prognosis.
How do you prevent this from happening? Don’t leave your pet in a car unattended. If you have a breed that is at risk, ONLY walk them in the early morning or in the evenings, when it’s cool. Make sure your pet ALWAYS has adequate drinking water and a decent amount of shade. We recommend that all pets at risk are kept indoors in an air-conditioned environment during hot or humid days.