Summer Heat is Tough on Dogs

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By John Andersen, DVM

Well, my dreams of a summer with 75-80 degree weather and plenty of rain for the lawn have rapidly faded these past few weeks. Welcome back, Virginia summer. And with the hot weather inevitably comes a string of heat stroke cases at veterinary hospitals across the country.

Heat stroke is all too common among companion dogs, and what is most upsetting to me is that it is almost always preventable. Most of the cases we will see consist of dogs who were jogging with their owners or dogs who were left in the car. Seeing a dog locked in a car on a hot, sunny day gets me boiling (hopefully you too—and be sure to call the police if you ever do see this). But so does seeing people jogging with their dogs when its 85+ degrees outside. Both acts are greatly jeopardizing the poor dog’s health.

To some degree, you could say that dogs just weren’t made for the heat. First off, they don’t sweat. You know that cool breeze you feel when you’re hot and sweaty? Well, dogs don’t benefit from that. They’ve got a pretty inefficient cooling mechanism–panting. The rapid, shallow breathing they are doing when they pant is their way of exchanging hot air for not-as-hot air. It takes them a long time to cool down, even when they’ve returned to the air-conditioned home.

Also, let’s not forget they are wearing fur coats in the summer (to varying degrees of course). I’ve heard people say that dogs need their coats and long hair to keep them cool, much like people in desert regions of the world may wear cloth over their heads and bodies. Well—nope. It’s pretty much just like you wearing your down jacket in July. I’ve never met a happier retriever in July than a shaved retriever in July. Remember, the Golden Retriever did not evolve in Virginia. We have taken the wild canines that God put elsewhere on this earth and modified them by selective breeding to eventually come up with particular breeds (would Pugs or Bulldogs survive in the wild?). And heavy-coated dogs like Retrievers and German Shepherds are just plain hot in the Virginia summertime.

Unfortunately for them, they’re crazy about us. Our dogs love us, don’t they? Have you heard the joke, “Who would be happy to see you after being locked in the trunk of a car for 20 minutes, your wife, or your dog?” Well, your dog of course! They’d jump through fire for you, they’ll wake up at 4 a.m. with you, they’re always there for you. They’d even go jogging on a 90 degree day with you. Or wait for you inside a car on a hot, sunny day. The image of that always gets me sad.

I’m not going to get into the mechanisms of heat stroke too much, just to say that when the temperature of a dog gets up to 108-109 degrees F, bad things happen. Many dogs die from brain damage, clotting deficiencies, and organ failure. Dogs who survive are lucky and are often in the hospital for days (there goes your Disney vacation).

So, just a few tips on how to avoid this:

1) NEVER leave your dog in the car when it’s hot out (I’m talking above 70-75 degrees). Just don’t do it. Bring them home before you run into the store, it’s just not worth it. Not to mention that on top of your dog overheating, you’ll probably have a police officer waiting for you when you get out.

2) Don’t take your dog jogging when it’s hot out (again, above 70-75 degrees). It’s really just not fair to the dogs–even though they’re probably begging for you to do it, go it alone for their sake. I do want to add here that this includes shorthaired sporty dogs, too. Although they can probably last longer than a long-haired dog, remember they don’t sweat and are still unable to dissipate heat like you and me. Also, it’s not just jogging that gets them; also be careful playing catch or playing at the dog park.

3) Watch for signs of overheating when it’s hot out–this includes slowing down (your dog who normally is choking itself trying to pull you on the leash is now five feet behind you on your jog), “super-panting” (big, swollen tongue hanging out of their mouth while they are panting extremely fast), and suddenly lying/plopping down during your walk/run. If you start to see these things, you probably want to rethink your activity level right then and there. More advanced signs of overheating include becoming wobbly, uncoordinated, disoriented, and eventually collapsing.

If you feel like your dog is getting hot, hose him or her down! Remember, they don’t sweat, and hosing down is going to cool them quicker than anything you can do. I often encourage people to hose their dogs down before exercising when it’s warmer out, then do it again when they’re done. It really helps. Then stop exercising and give them the day off.

If your dog begins to show some of the advanced signs of overheating, this is an emergency. I still recommend that you immediately hose the dog down with water, then call your vet or the emergency vet immediately to be seen.

In the end, just be aware that dogs are much more sensitive to heat than we are, and you need to think carefully about involving them in outdoor activities when it’s hot out. Remember that they won’t tell you they’re too hot until it’s too late. They are depending on you to keep them safe!