Warm weather, especially in the summer when daylight lasts longer, may seem like the perfect time to enjoy outdoor adventures with your four-legged best friend. But dogs aren’t built to regulate their temperature as efficiently as humans.
So, as we enjoy the dog days of summer, your dog’s risk for heatstroke rises with the temperature — dogs can overheat very rapidly, and the consequences can be deadly.
Our furries have very few sweat glands, which are located in their paw pads, but they not sufficient to cool them down. Instead, dogs’ primary method of self-cooling is by panting. Heavy panting causes the moisture from their tongue, mouth, nasal passages, and the lining of the lungs to evaporate, dispelling heat as water vapor.
Despite this, dogs are still prone to overheating when their cooling mechanism is overwhelmed. The most common cause of heatstroke in dogs is leaving them in an unventilated car or without shade. Other factors include a high environmental temperature, high humidity, lack of water, time spent in the sun, physical exertion, and breed.
Signs of Heatstroke in Dogs
Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition. A normal temperature for a dog is between 100.2° and 102.8° fahrenheit. When their temperature rises above 104°, they are in danger. Dogs with temperatures between 104° to 106° F, considered moderate heatstroke, can recover if treated promptly. Temperatures above 106° can be fatal if not treated immediately. When the temperature reaches 109°, the organs begin to shut down.
Unfortunately, even if the temperature doesn’t feel hot to us, it takes only a few minutes for a dog to overheat.
That means you must be able to readily identify the signs of overheating. “Signs of heatstroke start with hard panting,” says veterinarian Tanya Lopez of DC Ranch Animal Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Eventually their mucous membranes (gums, tongue and inside of the lips) turn redder and redder. They may even start to salivate excessively. As heatstroke progresses, the pet becomes weak, lethargic and begins to vomit or have diarrhea. With time, the brain becomes affected, leading to seizures.”
These are the signs that indicate your dog is suffering from heatstroke:
- Heavy, often frantic panting
- Red or pale gums
- Excessive drooling
- Bright red tongue
- Thick, sticky saliva
- Lack of coordination
- Glazed eyes
- Muscle tremors
Dogs Most Prone to Heatstroke
Some dogs and dog breeds are more susceptible to heatstroke than others, says Dr. Lopez. These include brachycephalic breeds, which are dogs with short snouts, such as Bulldogs and French Bulldogs.
“Dogs get rid of their body heat through their trachea (windpipe) and mouth when breathing. Brachycephalic breeds have shorter airways, more narrow airways and smaller openings to their airway making their heat releasing capabilities limited,” says Dr. Lopez.
While any dog can develop heat exhaustion and heatstroke, these breeds are most at risk:
Akita: This cold weather breed is high energy and has an extremely thick coat, qualities that make them prone to overheating in warm weather. While not considered brachiocephalic, they do have shorter snouts.
Alaskan Malamute: Bred to handle the arctic cold, they have a thick, double coat that can make heat unbearable and lead to heatstroke.
Boston Terriers: A brachiocephalic dog, they have very small nostrils and narrow tracheas, which makes it harder to breathe in hot conditions.
Boxers: Another brachiocephalic breed with a flat face, these large dogs are high energy and require larger amounts of water to stay hydrated and cool.
Bullmastiff: Super-sized and brachiocephalic spells trouble in high temperatures. Avoid exercise in hot weather.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: A brachiocephalic angel, their short nose and long coat makes them prone to overheating.
Chow Chow: This breed is known for a tremendously thick coat. Coupled with a short nose, they are susceptible to heatstroke. However, do not shave this breed; it will only make them hotter and ruin the quality of their coat.
English Bulldog: This breed is the archetype of the brachiocephalic dog, known for breathing problems in general. (Have you ever heard a bulldog snore?) They are also prone to obesity (and laziness), which adds to their risk factor.
French Bulldog: Another brachiocephalic snorter, they are also high energy, which makes it even harder for them to oxygenate their blood.
French Mastiff: Also known as the Dogues de Bordeaux, their short snouts and heavy bodies make them prone to severe overheating.
Lhasa Apso. With a long, heavy outer coat, insulating undercoat, and shortened snout, this breed is at risk for heatstroke.
Pekingese: Not only is this breed brachiocephalic, but with a very heavy coat and a tendency toward chunkiness, they are less efficient at regulating their body temperature. Keep out of direct sun.
Pug: With their flat, smushy faces and extremely short noses, they have trouble breathing sometimes in the best of circumstances. They are also close to the ground where the heat radiates upward. Pugs with black coats that trap the heat have an even harder time regulating body temperature.
Saint Bernard: Their large frame and dense coat make them prone to heatstroke.
Shih Tzu: With their short noses and long, thick hair, this breed is prone to heatstroke. Don’t shave, but clip shorter in the summer to help them stay cool.
Siberian Husky: The name says it all: huskies are designed for cold weather. A dense double coat makes this breed vulnerable to overheating.
Generally, senior dogs and dogs that are overweight are more also susceptible to overheating. So are dogs with thick, double coats, all brachiocephalic breeds, and any dog with respiratory disease.
Prevention and First Aid for Dog Heatstroke
When the temperature rises above 90 degrees, Dr. Lopez does not recommend any exercise outside during the day, even for breeds that are healthy and not brachiocephalic. “Walks and play should be limited to the time prior to and including sunrise and after sunset,” she says.
However, flat face breeds require extra caution, she says. “I recommend avoiding any outdoor activity in temperatures above 80 degrees.”
If you are spending time outdoors, always provide shade and a water dish. Consider using a cooling dog bed and/or a kiddie pool filled with cool water (remember to always supervise your dog).
If you observe any of the symptoms above, remove your dog from the heat immediately. If you can, take him inside to an air-conditioned room or a room with a fan.
If you’re near a lake or pool, take your dog into the water to cool down. If not, you can run a hose over his body; lay him in a bathtub filled with shallow, cool water; place cool, wet cloths on his neck, in the armpits of his front legs, and between his hind legs; wet his paw pads and ears with cool water and give him a drink of cool water if he’s willing to drink. Some experts state you should not give dogs ice cubes, as they can lower their temperature too rapidly and cause them to go into shock.
It’s important to know when to take your dog to an animal hospital, says Dr. Lopez. “If your pet is panting excessively for longer than a 15- to 20-minute period after being exposed to heat or exercise, or if your pet has red lips, gums, excess salivation, weakness, vomiting or diarrhea in addition to excess panting, please seek veterinary care immediately!”