Gazette Vet: Heat Stressed Out

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Summer weather is here, which means an uptick in heat-related illness. I probably write a column on this every year or two, but it continues to be such a common problem in dogs that I think a gentle reminder that we have a major sensory disconnect from our dogs is in order.

In the human field, heat-related illness is generally broken down into heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  

Heat stroke is deadly. That is when your body temperature has been too high for too long and bad things are starting to happen to your brain and your organs. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention. Clinical signs may include headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion and unconsciousness. Heat exhaustion can be thought of as a step below this. You’re still overheated, and you may feel weak or dizzy, but you are generally able to recover if you stop what you are doing and cool down.

There is, of course, no black line between the two conditions, but rather a gradient where more severe or prolonged heat exhaustion turns into heat stroke.

As I often tell my clients, for every one case of heat stroke I see (which often do not end well), I will see hundreds of cases of heat exhaustion, and most of them are by conscientious dog owners who really love their dogs and take good care of them. However, there is such a disconnect between how we are feeling outside at a certain temperature and how dogs are feeling, that we humans often mess up and allow our dogs to overdo it to the point of major illness.  

When dogs get heat exhaustion, I will often see residual signs that last for several days and require a visit to the vet. Most common is vomiting and diarrhea. Heat can really cause stress to their gastrointestinal tract, leading to some pretty bad vomiting and/or diarrhea when they get too hot. I also see dizziness, collapse, lethargy, and breathing difficulties due to heat exhaustion.

Let’s forget for a moment the obvious cases when dogs are left in cars on hot days. Obviously, don’t do this! We get a few of these every year and they are always very sad, very preventable, and very stupid.

So, why do I see so many dogs who’s loving, caring owners put them into heat exhaustion to the point where they need medical care?

Dogs are knuckleheads! Our domestic dogs are awesome, playful companions, but I will be the first to say that perhaps they have lost some of the common sense that their wolf ancestors gave them. Go to any dog park and look at some of the dogs play–running in circles, crashing into each other, letting off a lot of steam in a hyperactive fit. The same is true when you put your running shoes on or go grab the leash. They don’t care how hot it is outside, they want to play with you! So, rule number one is to never trust that your dog will let you know when they are getting too hot. They are all knuckleheads and will all overdo it if given the chance. I recently had a dog who went to the ER for severe heat exhaustion that was caused simply by him playing by himself in the backyard on a warm afternoon!

We feel guilty! We have jobs and responsibilities that keep us from going on two-hour hikes with our dogs every day. But we know they want and love exercise! And so, here it is a Tuesday afternoon, sure it’s a bit warm outside, but I’ve got loads of free time and it would be a perfect time to take Rover for a run, and he is so fired up, he’s got the leash in his mouth! Yes, our own sense of guilt and responsibility to exercise our dogs is the main reason we cause them heat exhaustion. The intent is good, but the timing is all wrong.

Dogs are loyal and dedicated, to the death. Of course Rover will go running with you on a 75-degree afternoon–he will do anything for you. As you are running, you notice he’s panting heavily and dragging behind, but of course he is, it’s a bit warm, but he’s keeping up and he needs his exercise! But if we could only see it from their view: “Oh my gosh, I’m really dizzy and I feel like I’m about to pass out, I’m so hot. But my master wants to run and so I will run with her, even if I die. I can’t stop, I don’t want to let her down. I can barely see, I’m not sure how long I can make it, I wish she would stop pulling my collar….”

Remember, dogs don’t sweat. Panting is a really slow and inefficient way to cool down. For us, wearing a tank top on a 75-degree day if there is a breeze can feel pretty good! But you can imagine that dogs are pretty much always running in a stagnant air mass, because a breeze does them no good whatsoever to cool down.  

Umm, duh, they’re wearing a thick fur coat. While you are in your short shorts and your cooling tank top, your Labrador has a double layer fur coat. Let’s see you wear that and go running at 4 p.m. in June!

Here are a few tips to avoid a trip to the ER and a really guilty conscience this summer:

Remember, June through August is the dog “off season.” Although we humans are most active, this is the worst time to exercise your dogs. Don’t feel bad not giving them as much exercise in the summer. They would prefer more air conditioning and less jogging in their fur jackets.

Go in the morning! Cooler temps, less humidity and no direct sun. Get up early if you’re going to take them for a run or to the dog park.  

Avoid afternoons. While this is the most convenient time for most people, it’s just too hot for a doggy play date.

Stay near water. Water is great, they can finally cool down! Taking them where they can swim or jump in and out of a pond or creek is a great way to ensure they don’t overheat.  

If it is over 60 degrees, you really need to think about what you’re about to do with your dog. Dogs can easily overheat in 65-degree weather, for all of the reasons mentioned above.  So, go slow, go easy, go short, and keep it calm! 

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