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Posted on 06-24-2015
Heatstroke (hyperthermia) occurs when a dog’s normal body mechanisms cannot keep his body temperature in a safe range: that is, when heat gain exceeds his ability to dissipate that heat. Contrary to what we often think, dogs overheat more quickly than we do. Dogs do not sweat through their skin like humans, but sweat only through their nose and foot pads. Dogs primarily release heat by panting and blowing off the heat which is not as effective as in humans.
We cannot judge the comfort or safety level of our dogs through our own standards of how hot we are. This is particularly true for overweight dogs and for certain “flat-nosed” (brachycephalic) breeds (bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, Boston Terriers & others) who are more at risk because the very short muzzle limits their ability to cool themselves.
The prompt for progression from being hot to heat stress to heat exhaustion to heat stroke is most commonly, being a hot environment. (Certain types of inflammation can cause hyperthermia, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here.) If a dog cannot effectively expel heat, his internal body temperature begins to rise. Normal body temperature is 100° – 102.5°F, and a rise in body temperature of only 4° above that can cause damage to the body’s cellular system and organs, which may become irreversible. Once the process of heat stroke has begun, there is precious little time before serious organ damage or even death can occur.
High temperatures cause chemical reactions that break down body cells, leading to dehydration and thickening of the dog’s blood, placing extreme strain on the heart, causing blood clotting and subsequent death of involved tissue. Dramatic damage to liver, brain and intestinal cells can occur very quickly, followed by organ failure and death soon after. Even a dog who recovers from overheating can have organ damage and lifelong health problems. Walking a dog on hot pavement (especially asphalt surfaces) can initiate this process, or in areas without tree cover. One of the more common scenarios we see is from leaving a dog in a parked car. Even though we’ve heard the stories about these sad cases, people still leave their dogs in the car while they shop, dine, see a movie and all kinds of other activities. It doesn’t matter if you crack the windows or leave water for your dog to drink. It doesn’t matter if you park in the shade, there’s a breeze or if you’ve done this before. Even with the windows open or cracked, the temperature in the car can reach as much as 40 degrees warmer than the outside temperature in just a few minutes.
The signs of heat stroke can be subtle initially. Because our dogs want to be with us and don’t communicate distress or discomfort well, it’s important that we monitor them closely for any signs of heat stress.
If you have any thought your dog is experiencing any heat related stress, act immediately and don’t hesitate to ask others for assistance. Contact us or a local pet emergency facility and bring your dog in as quickly as possible. This is potentially a life-threatening emergency. Here’s what to do if you can’t get her in immediately.
Dogs with heat exhaustion or mild-moderate hyperthermia often recover without complications. Severe heat stroke can cause organ damage that might need ongoing care. It’s important to know that once a dog has had a case of hyperthermia, they are at increased risk of succumbing to hyperthermia in the future.
Initially, the veterinarian will work to cool your dog and lower the body temperature to a safe range while continuing to monitor her condition. She will be given IV fluid therapy and possibly oxygen as well. The veterinarian will monitor for shock, respiratory distress, kidney failure, heart arrhythmias, and any other complications. Any health issues will be treated accordingly. Blood and urine samples may be taken before and during the treatment as well as after treatment to monitor organ function, assess for clotting abnormalities, etc.
Remember, any dog that cannot cool himself is at risk.
Finally, practice what you preach–be safe in the heat for yourself and your dogs. They need you!
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