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Heatstroke in dogs: how to spot, avoid and treat

This week, our Veterinarian friends from Pets on tapp™ help us highlight a big problem amongst dogs during the summer months - heat stroke!

Despite all the chaos that COVID-19 has brought us, we are still incredibly lucky to have easy access to beautiful hiking trails and remote beaches to enjoy the great outdoors with our dogs. However, when we share these amazing adventures with our furry friends we sometimes inadvertently put them at risk!

Heat stroke (also known as hyperthermia) is a condition caused by high body temperatures secondary to high external temperatures or excessive exercise in humid conditions. In Hong Kong we are faced with not only high summer temperatures, but also high humidity - a double whammy for humans and pets alike. The high humidity prevents rapid cooling via panting (which is one of the major ways a dog cools itself) increasing the chances of the pet being affected by heat stroke.

As with anything, if we know what to look out for we can take control of the situation sooner and hopefully have better outcomes for our pets.

What are the signs and symptoms of heat stroke?

  • Excessive panting

  • Drooling

  • Reddened gums

  • Restlessness

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Dullness

  • Collapse

  • Seizuring

Pets at higher risk

  • Obese animals have a thicker layer of fat insulating them making it easier to over heat. Obesity also affects airways by increasing pressure on the lungs from the abdomen which can affect cooling via panting.

  • Pets suffering from airways disease such as tracheal collapse. As these pets start to pant their airways that are prone to collapsing start to narrow resulting in less air movement, the more they narrow the harder the pet tries to draw breath. The pet often starts to panic as they cant catch their breath causing severe respiratory distress. If allowed to continue unchecked the airways become inflamed and secretions get stuck causing an obstruction.

  • Snub nose (also known as brachycephalic) breeds e.g. french bulldogs, pugs. These dogs have a very abnormal upper respiratory tract where most of the heat is lost in dogs, they are prone to tracheal collapse and obesity… making them very inefficient at cooling themselves. These guys can get heat stroke even when being pushed in a trolley!!!

What should you do if you suspect your dog is suffering from heatstroke?

  • Take your pet to the nearest vet ASAP

  • Start cooling them:

  • Move the pet to a cooler environment - such as a shaded area or car with fan or air conditioning.

  • Apply tap water over their body, especially the hairless areas of armpits and groins, where large blood vessels are located

  • A fan allows for more rapid evaporation and is very effective at cooling

  • Offer drinking water in small volumes

Common Mistakes

  • Wanting to take your pet to ‘your’ family vet who is further away - This time wasted in a car, sometimes stuck in traffic is often a life vs death situation. The most important thing when exploring new parts of Hong Kong with your pet is to ensure you know where the closest veterinarian is located. Initial stabilization of the pet is vital and a pet can always be transferred to a 24-hour hospital later.

  • Using ice packs or ice cold water to cool a pet - These cause constriction of the blood vessels in the skin. When a pet experiences heat stroke the body tries to move hot blood from the core and the vital organs (heart and brain) to the periphery where it can escape via skin. It does this by dilating the blood vessels, a reason why the blood pressure drops in these patients. When we use water that is cooler than the body temperature, such as ice packs, we cause constriction of these peripheral blood vessels leading to a decrease in the ability to cool the core via the skin. This makes the situation worse.

Dog drinking

  • Using wet towels to cool a pet - Many posts on Facebook mention using water soaked towels as a method to cool a pet. These are initially good options but as soon as they warm up and air becomes trapped between the towel and the pet’s body. Heat can no longer be exchanged and the towel just becomes an insulator making the situation worse.

  • Allowing a pet to drink water freely - When a pet is feeling the full effects of heat stroke there is a drive to drink large volumes of water which can lead to vomiting, increasing chances of aspiration pneumonia.

Top Tips to avoid Heat stroke

  • Always allow your pet access to a cool, shaded area on a hot day

  • Always have water available, and offer this frequently when out exercising with your dog