One night a few summers ago, I was working at an emergency hospital near the shore when a family rushed in with their French Bulldog. The pup was hyperventilating, struggling to breathe. The Frenchie, who was a nervous car rider, had panted anxiously throughout the hour-long ride from Philadelphia to Ocean City. When he arrived at the hospital, he was dehydrated and had a temperature of 105 degrees F (normal dog temperature is around 102 degrees F). The Frenchie had suffered heatstroke in an air-conditioned car.
Just like in humans, pet heatstroke is a medical emergency that can result in permanent organ damage or even death if not treated right away. But the warning signs aren’t always obvious. Here’s what to watch out for–and what to do–if you think your pet may be suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Any dog can get heatstroke, but some are more prone to overheating than others. Brachycephalic breeds (those with smooshed-in faces, ie. Pugs, Shih Tzus, Bulldogs, Pekinese, etc) have a notoriously difficult time cooling off in the heat. Obese dogs, especially those with a lot of weight on the chest, may have a tougher time breathing in hot weather too. Senior dogs and dogs with certain medical conditions, including laryngeal paralysis, maybe less heat-tolerant than they once were.
Dogs don’t have sweat glands like humans which means they can’t lose heat through evaporative cooling from the skin. Dogs get rid of heat by panting. The hotter they are, the harder and faster they’ll pant. If it’s warm outside and your dog can’t seem to catch its breath, it’s time to come inside to cool down. Offer cold water. Very heavy or rapid panting that persists for a half hour or longer, even after you move your dog to a cool location, could be pet heat exhaustion or heat stroke symptoms.
Other pet heat stroke signs and symptoms in dogs include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pale gums
- Racing heartbeat
If you think your pet might be suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, take it to the veterinarian. Vets typically treat heatstroke in a couple of steps. First, your dog will receive a sedative to help it stay calm and quiet. (Not being able to breathe → anxiety → more panting.) Then we’ll give IV fluids to help rehydrate and cool the core body temperature. Your dog may also receive a steroid medication to help reduce any swelling or inflammation in the throat or respiratory tract caused by hyperventilation. Depending on the severity, we may run bloodwork to make sure there was no damage to the kidneys or other organs.
People often ask me how hot is too hot for taking the dog outside? If you’re uncomfortably hot or sweaty, that means it’s probably too hot to take your dog outside for any extended period. If you will be outside with your dog in the heat, make sure it has access to plenty of shade and water. And never leave your dog in a hot car–even if it’s not that hot out. At 70 degrees F on a sunny day, the temperature inside a car can climb to 104 degrees F in less than half an hour–too hot for pets and people.