Don’t let your pet be a “hot dog” this summer – understand the risks of heat-related illness
As the warm days of summer invite us to spend more time outside with our four-legged friends, pet parents need to be mindful about how hot weather can affect your dogs.
Most dog owners know they should never leave their pet unattended in a vehicle (where temperatures can rise 30 degrees in just 20 minutes), or leave their pet outside without access to shade and fresh water. What many dog owners may not realize is how other medical and environmental factors can contribute to and increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, including heatstroke.
Heatstroke, which kills hundreds of dogs every year, occurs when the body’s cooling systems are overwhelmed. In order to protect your dog from heatstroke, heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses, it’s important to first understand how your dog stays cool.
Dogs can decrease or maintain normal body temperature (101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit) in four ways: convection, conduction, radiation and evaporation. Convection is the process of transferring heat to cooler air. Conduction occurs when heat is transferred to a cooler object touching the body. Radiation is the natural process of releasing body heat into the environment. Evaporation is a process where fluid changes into vapor, such as in perspiration or panting, resulting in heat loss.
When environmental temperatures are below body temperature, heat is lost through convection and radiation. However, when environmental temperatures are above body temperature, evaporation is the only way the body can cool itself. Dogs pant to decrease body body temperature by this mechanism.
Acclimatization is another way dogs cope with heat. Dogs can partially acclimatize to high external temperature in 10 to 20 days, but full acclimatization can take up to 60 days. If we move our pets from cooler temperatures to warm temperatures, they may be more sensitive to these higher ambient temperatures. Owners need to adjust their pet’s environment and activity type and level to address this increased vulnerability.
High humidity, limited access to water (including water bowls that can be tipped over easily), and medications such as diuretics, beta-blockers and phenothiazines (e.g., the common sedative acepromazine) can predispose dogs to heatstroke. Dogs with impaired breathing due to structural conformation, such as English bulldogs and pugs, or dogs with respiratory diseases such as laryngeal paralysis, are at higher risk for heatstroke. Thick, dark hair coats can predispose dogs to heatstroke. A recent study suggested overweight dogs have a higher mortality rate if they develop heatstroke.
Other predisposing factors for heat-related illnesses include heart disease, neurologic disease, and older age. It’s well established that elderly people have a higher risk for heatstroke. Although no studies have been done in dogs, most veterinarians encourage owners need to take special care to keep their older canine companions comfortable.
Recognizing heatstroke can be difficult, since the signs of heatstroke can look very similar to other diseases. Weakness, labored breathing and collapse are common signs of heatstroke. For your veterinarian, your pet’s recent history, coupled with a high body temperature, can confirm the diagnosis.
If you suspect your dog has heatstroke, you should start cooling measures immediately and head to the nearest veterinary emergency clinic. Apply cool water using a hose or other water source, and then cover the dog with towels soaked in cool water for transport. Do not use ice packs or ice water to cool a potential heatstroke victim; the cold can actually impair heat transfer and too rapid cooling can lead to more organ damage.
Prevention is the key to protecting your dog from heatstroke. Don’t leave your dog in the car, even with the window open. Don’t leave your dog in the yard without shade and ample fresh water. Don’t rigorously exercise your pet in the heat of the day. Know if your pet has physical or medical challenges that might increase their risk for heatstroke, and understand that the risk of heatstroke can change over time.
You can ensure your pet has a healthy and happy summer by helping them keep their cool when the temperatures start to rise.
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