Heatstroke

These days we’re all feeling the heat — dogs included.

Winnie, a Lambert's Cove regular, cools off on a hot day at the beach. File photo Sam Moore

Saturday morning I poked my head outside. It was going to be a scorcher. Hot. Humid. And I was planning on walking from Five Corners to Ocean Park in support of Black Lives Matter. Okay. Take a deep breath. We are blessed to live in a community where controversies about artificial turf or roundabouts are more likely to divide us than issues of race. But on a national level, we are not so lucky. Calling attention to the institutionalized racism in our country doesn’t mean we don’t also support and care about our police officers, just as marching to raise awareness about breast cancer or world hunger doesn’t preclude concern about other kinds of cancer or poverty-related issues. We are all in this together. I will leave further debating to those who like arguing on social media and just say I felt it was important to attend this rally. The problem was, I can’t take the heat.

Not the political or social heat. I literally can’t take the heat. The first time I had heatstroke was fourth grade, waiting to take a “Bicycle Safety” test. We were required to ride a designated course, showing our knowledge of everything from hand signals to traffic laws, for which we would be rewarded with a shiny red sticker affixed to our bike fender indicating permission to pedal to elementary school. I will gloss over the fact that in those days there were no bike paths where I lived. We rode in the streets. Nor did anyone wear a helmet. But I digress. As I stood in line, the July sun beating down on my helmetless head, I suddenly got woozy and nauseated. The next thing I knew, people were carrying me into the shade and summoning the nurse. So as I prepared to walk this past weekend, I filled my backpack with ice packs and water bottles, applied sunblock, donned a big hat. I made arrangements that if halfway there the heat overwhelmed me, I had a place to cool down and a ride the rest of the way. What does any of this have to do with veterinary medicine, you ask? Simple. There were two dogs along on the march. And dogs’ lives matter to me.

Heatstroke. I write about it year after year, yet people still put pets at risk, time and time again, leaving them in parked cars, taking them for hikes and to the beach during the hottest time of day, having them run alongside on long bike rides. But unlike me, dogs can’t prepare with backpacks of ice and water. Dogs can’t say, “Hey, folks. I’m feeling kind of sick. Can we stop now?” Dogs will run after your bicycles until they drop. And drop they do.

People on the walk could see I was hot. My face was red and I was, hmm, shall we say “glowing”? Dogs, however, do not perspire. The only way they have to cool down is panting. Overweight dogs, those with heavy coats, and smoosh-faced breeds (like bulldogs and pugs) are particularly at risk, as are older dogs and those with cardiac problems, lung disease, or laryngeal paralysis. But even young dogs can succumb quickly in hot, humid weather. The first signs are panting and salivation, but since dogs pant and drool normally, it’s easy to overlook the onset of hyperthermia until it becomes severe. And it can progress incredibly quickly. As internal body temperature rises, heart rate accelerates. Bloody vomiting and diarrhea may occur. Cardiac arrhythmias and difficulty breathing may ensue. Left untreated, dogs will finally exhibit some combination of shock, seizures, coma, respiratory arrest, and death.

I mentioned my concern to one of the dog owners, suggesting they wet their pooch down. They tried to comply, pouring water on her back, but it just beaded up on her thick shiny coat and rolled off. I knew this particular dog personally and trusted she was physically fit and used to long walks, but atop the drawbridge the sun was relentless. “Splash water on her tummy,” I suggested. When a pet has heatstroke, the first thing to do is wet the animal thoroughly, really soaking down to the skin. This can be difficult with heavy-coated dogs, so concentrate on areas with less fur, like belly and groin. Do not use ice or ice water. These are too cold and actually counterproductive, constricting peripheral blood vessels and reducing release of heat. Just keep hosing the animal down. Put on the AC. Get a fan blowing. Then call your veterinarian. Severe heatstroke can cause organ damage, particularly kidney failure, brain swelling, and clotting disorders. Intravenous fluids and other medications may be warranted for optimum prognosis.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Please, please, please: Don’t leave your dog in your car in the summer. Not even for “a second.” Not even “in the shade.” If you bring Rover to the beach, bring an umbrella and water bowl too. Save hiking and biking for cooler times of day. Pay close attention to how hot Rover is. You don’t want to end up miles into the State Forest with an 80-pound dog collapsed beside you, and no way to carry him out. For me, I had to bail halfway, cooling off in the air-conditioned hospital lobby and getting a lift the rest of the way. At Ocean Park, I saw both dogs had arrived safely, but their owners were wisely letting them cool off with a quick dunk in an available body of water that shall go unnamed, as I’m not sure it’s supposed to be, ahem, a wading pool for pups.

Of course all lives matter. That doesn’t mean we stop paying specific attention to specific situations. Whether it’s a small, personal matter, like keeping ourselves and our dogs safe from heatstroke, or big, societal matters, like striving to heal the legacy of racism and to end the violence … with liberty and justice for all.