I spent my first 8 years as a veterinarian working in the ER. Emergency vets unfortunately treat more heat stroke patients than the average vet. Even if the pet starts treatment at their regular practice, the heat stroke patient is often transferred to a 24 hour facility for ongoing care. I remember some heartbreaking situations of dogs overheating back in my old ER days. Now that it is summer I want to remind you to be careful.
The most common cause of heat stroke in pets is simply your pooch exercising in hot weather. Dogs that are “brachycephalic” (short nosed) are particularly predisposed to overheating, especially if chubby. Another all too common presentation is the old Labrador or golden retriever who may have laryngeal paralysis while out for a leisurely walk on a hot day. Laryngeal paralysis may go unnoticed by owners. Some owners simply think their old retriever is a “loud breather” until an episode of respiratory distress and overheating. As a former ER vet, I can hear a “Lar Par” dog in the other room.
Finally, a very tragic yet preventable situation is a dog left in a car on a warm day. It can be 40 degrees warmer inside a car than the outside, even with the windows cracked. In my 19 years of practice I have met two veterinarians who lost their own pets to heat stroke by accidentally leaving their dogs in the car. If it can happen to a vet, it can happen to you.
What you can do at home: cool your pet with cool to tepid water and fan the air to promote convection of heat. Get your pet to the vet immediately. If you have a thermometer handy, stop cooling once the temperature gets to 103 or 104 degrees as the temperature will then likely continue to drop and you may then be dealing with a cold dog. Ice baths are too aggressive. Use cool water and towels and air circulation.
Once you get your pet to the ER clinic, you can anticipate your vet will treat AGGRESSIVELY with IV fluids. Your vet will give fluids and then more fluids. It is surprising how much fluids these shocky heat stroke patients require. If the temperature is still above 103 or 104, your vet will continue the cooling efforts that you started. Your vet will likely administer oxygen, monitor the blood pressure, electrolytes, kidney values, blood glucose, clotting parameters, and mentation extremely closely. DIC (a dangerous cascade of clotting abnormalities) can be triggered by heat stroke, so your vet will monitor clotting ability closely and very likely will administer plasma transfusions. Plasma and synthetic colloids can be used to improve low blood pressure.
Pets with brain swelling can seizure which would necessitate anti-convulsants and possibly intubation of the airway. When the gut overheats, the cells lining the GI tract may slough resulting in vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Heat stroke patients can go into acute kidney failure, so your vet will scrutinize your pet’s urine output. Heat stroke can trigger heart arrhythmias, so your vet will monitor the ECG. Your veterinarian will monitor for all of these complications and treat accordingly. A pet who is hospitalized for heat stroke is a critically ill patient. The pet may spend several days or longer hospitalized. Your vet may need to check lab-work repeatedly.
What can you do to prevent heat stroke? If there is a heat wave, keep your pet indoors. Avoid exercising in the heat of the day, particularly if your pet has any prior respiratory issues or is a short-nosed breed. Pets have few sweat glands and rely on their respirations to cool off. Pudgy pets with respiratory issues are at an even higher risk for heat stroke. Never leave your pet in a car if the temperature is over 70 degrees. If conditions are right (sunny humid days) even an outdoor temp in the 60s could spell danger for a pet left in a car.
Your goof-ball dog may be driving you crazy to go play fetch on a sunny afternoon. Be smart. If there is a heat wave, stay inside or wait until it is cool in the late evening or early morning. Even if you are a super jock, don’t take your dog for a 5 mile run on a hot day. Or, if your pet likes to swim, consider a swim at the lake as the day starts to cool down. We at ADW wish you a safe summer.
NOTE: Consult your Veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.