It has begun. The season of hot dogs. I’m not talking about the weiners you grilled on the Fourth of July. I’m talking about the endless calls that start like this: My dog doesn’t want to play. My dog doesn’t want to go on his walk. My dog is panting. A lot. And drooling. Maybe your dog is sick, or injured, or feeling lazy … or maybe the problem is that your dog is hot. Hot to the point of endangering his health.
Dogs don’t sweat. Instead, they rely almost entirely on panting to blow off extra heat. So on a warmish day when you might just perspire a bit, Bratwurst, the bulldog, is going to pant. If it’s humid, he’s going to pant even harder. Add any of a number of exacerbating factors, and before you know it, he’s experiencing some degree of overheating. Call it heat stress, heat prostration, heat exhaustion, heat-related hyperthermia, or heat stroke, it is not uncommon for dogs to experience life-threatening elevations in body temperature due to circumstances that owners do not even realize are dangerous.
What circumstances, you ask? Well, let’s start with Bratwurst himself. A pup’s specific physical and medical condition can increase his risk. Overweight dogs, those with heavy coats, and smoosh-faced breeds (like bulldogs and pugs) are particularly susceptible, as are older dogs and those with chronic cardiac problems, lung disease, or laryngeal paralysis. But even young dogs can succumb quickly in summer weather. Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers seem particularly prone to heat stress, even young, athletic individuals.
Speaking of athletics, this brings us to other circumstances that can exacerbate heat stress — exertion and environment. Every year I write about heat stroke, yet every year I see case after case of seriously overheated pooches, with people putting their pets at risk, taking them for hikes or to the beach during the hottest time of day, or having them run alongside on long bike rides. Dogs can’t say, “Hey, folks. I’m feeling kind of sick. Can we stop now?” Many dogs, with more heart than common sense, will run and play until they drop. And drop they do. We humans, we can talk. We can say, “Wow, it’s hot. I need to get out of the sun.” We can turn on the AC, hop in the shower, jump in the ocean. But a dog can’t usually do these things.
If Frankfurter, the foxhound, is refusing to play ball or take a walk, and is panting heavily, pay attention. Let sleeping dogs lie. Better yet, move her into an air-conditioned space. Put a box fan on the floor right in front of her. At this point, she may cool down and be fine, but things can also go south very quickly.
True heat stroke means Frankie’s body temperature has gone over 105° as a result of hot, humid weather or excessive exercise (as opposed to fever related to infectious disease). The first signs of heat stroke include panting and salivation, but since pups may pant and drool normally, it’s easy to overlook the onset.
In cases of mild overheating, start with wetting Frankie down thoroughly. You have to make sure you are really soaking her all the way down to the skin. Ruffle the coat to be sure her skin is getting wet. This is particularly important with dogs with heavy coats. Concentrate on areas with less fur, like the belly and groin. Do not use ice or ice water. This is too cold, and actually counterproductive, constricting peripheral blood vessels and reducing the release of heat from inside the body. Just keep hosing her down. If you can, take a rectal temperature. This is helpful both to confirm the diagnosis and to know when you have cooled her down enough. The goal is to bring her temperature down to around 102° to 103°, but no lower. Cooling too fast or too much can cause additional complications.
In severe cases, seek veterinarian care immediately. As the internal body temperature rises, the heart starts to beat rapidly. Bloody vomiting and diarrhea may occur, at which point even the least observant owner knows something is wrong. Cardiac arrhythmias and difficulty breathing may ensue, as well as organ damage, particularly kidney failure, swelling of the brain, and clotting disorders. Left untreated, Frankie will finally exhibit some combination of shock, seizures, coma, respiratory arrest, and death.
Your first step is to alert your veterinarian by phone, making sure they are available. On the Vineyard, most practices participate in a rotating on-call schedule. You don’t want to waste time going to the wrong place and finding no doctor on duty to help you. Turn on the AC in the car. Soak towels in cool water so you can continue to wet Frankie down while en route. Then head to the appropriate veterinary clinic, where Frankie can receive intravenous fluids, oxygen therapy, and other medications to maximize her chances of survival. Some heat stroke victims develop low blood sugar and need intravenous glucose. Those with swelling of the brain may need diuretics to lessen neurological damage. Antibiotics are often indicated because of injury to the gastrointestinal tract. Heart arrhythmias need to be monitored and treated appropriately. Many of these complications can develop well after the initial event of overheating.
According to some published data, up to half of dogs that present to veterinary hospitals with severe heat stroke do not survive. 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 Bratwurst to the beach, bring an umbrella and water bowl. Better yet, don’t take him to the beach at all. Leave him home. Inside. With the fan or AC on. Save hiking, biking, and throwing the ball with Frankfurter for cooler times. If you must have a hot dog, make it a Hebrew National. Mustard and relish, please.