by John Andersen, DVM
The warm weather is here and unfortunately we had our first heat stroke fatality before June even arrived as well as a second near fatality. These were both dogs who were spoiled and sheltered by their loving families, but who got themselves into tragic situations where the dangers of hot weather became very real.
I can’t stress enough to people the drastic differences between a dog’s temperature regulation and our own. Humans were made for hot weather. We do not have fur. We sweat. We have the ability to reason and avoid dangerous situations.
Dogs have fur. Most dogs have both an outer coat and an under coat of fur. Imagine if you were wearing a fur coat in the summer. I have heard many myths claiming that dogs need their coats to stay cool in the summer, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ask any owner who gets their dog’s coat shaved if their dog feels cooler in the summer and you will hear a resounding yes.
Dogs can’t sweat. That cool breeze that feels so nice to us has zero effect on your dog. They cool down by panting—rapid, shallow breaths that slowly and inefficiently exchange the dog’s hot air for the somewhat cooler air of the environment. It takes dogs significantly longer to cool down than it does for us, and don’t forget, they’re wearing a fur coat, too.
Dogs don’t reason. They do not understand that the disorientation they are feeling is because they’re overheating and that they should cool down. They just keep trying to play ball or keep up with their owners.
While a 75 degree day doesn’t seem at all too warm for a person to go jogging, I would argue that this is way too hot to take your dog. Will he complain? Nope. None of the dogs that suffer from heat stroke and heat exhaustion while running with their owners do. They simply do their best to hang in there with you until they start to become disoriented and weak. Waiting for signs that your dog is overheating is foolish. Be aware of the heat and avoid exercise during the heat of the day (75 degrees and warmer in my humble opinion).
Jogging is, of course, not the only reason dogs overheat (although it is a tragically common one). Playing ball or Frisbee is another frequent cause. As we stand still enjoying the cool breeze blowing over our sweaty, hairless bodies, our poor dog is sprinting after the ball again and again and again. They will be enthusiastic and beg for more – they’re dogs! But we need to be responsible and aware of what we are asking of them. To prove my point, I encourage you to take your dog’s temperature after a few minutes of ball play during any weather. You’ll be shocked at how quickly they get to 104-105 degrees.
Being locked in a car is another tragic but common reason that we see heat stroke cases. It’s easy to forget how quickly cars can heat up in the hot sun.
Heat takes its toll on any living body. In the severe cases, they die. Sometimes it is amazingly quick, other times its after days of suffering in critical care. From multi-organ failure, to spontaneous bleeding, to hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, excessive heat destroys everything. But for every fatal case of heat stroke we see, there are probably a hundred cases of heat exhaustion—cases where heat has some significant, but not immediately life threatening effects on the body. In dogs, this often presents as vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite and lethargy. It’s easy to think that your dog is probably sick because of the rawhide he ate 2 days ago, but sometimes easy to forget about that game of fetch you were playing yesterday in the heat.
The first step in preventing heat stroke and heat exhaustion is simply being aware of the limitations of your dog’s ability to cool herself. Assume she’s always feeling a lot hotter than you, but she’s also a lot tougher than you, so she won’t really complain until it’s too late. Stay cool and have a great, safe summer!