Most dogs have a warm fur coat, and unlike humans who eliminate heat through sweating, dogs pant to cool themselves down and regulate their body temperature. But in some cases panting is not enough, and as a dog’s body temperature rises, so does their likelihood of experiencing a heat-related illness. Heat stress, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke can occur – and in the worst cases, heat stroke in dogs can be fatal. So it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke in dogs, as well as how to treat and prevent this life-threatening condition in your dog or dogs.

What is heat stroke in dogs?

Heat stroke is most common in the warm months, but can happen to your dog any time of year. It can also happen quite suddenly, so it’s important to know what to look out for. Hyperthermia in dogs occurs when panting is not enough, and their body temperature increases above 39°C. They become subject to the following types of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke in dogs:

Heat stress: When dogs experience heat stress, they become very thirsty and pant rapidly. The dog is mentally aware and can move about, but is under stress from the heat. It’s important to cool the dog down immediately at this stage, to prevent heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat stroke vs heat exhaustion in dogs

Heat exhaustion: In cases of heat exhaustion, the heat stress has become extreme. The heat-exhausted dog typically is very weak and may have difficulty moving around and could collapse. They are very thirsty, and pant heavily.

Heat stroke: Heat stroke is the most serious form of hyperthermia, in which the dog’s temperature reaches a dangerous 41.1°C or even higher. Neurological and organ function begins to fail. At 43°C, proteins which make up the cells of the dog’s body begin to melt. The higher the temperatures and the longer the dog is exposed to heat, the greater the chances are of organ failure and death1.

Can dogs die of heat stroke?

Yes, heat stroke in dogs can cause death. High temperatures affect various organ functioning and cellular structure, and can cause a dog’s body to shut down irreversibly. So it’s important to be aware of the warning signs of overheating and heat stroke in dogs and take steps to cool your dog down in hot weather conditions.

Infographic about overheating, high temperatures and heat stroke in dogs

What causes heat stroke in dogs?

The most common cause of heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses in dogs is: leaving a dog in a car with not enough air circulation. Since dogs release heat through panting, inadequate ventilation is enough to cause them to get overheated. Of course, elevated temperatures and humidity also cause heat stroke. Other factors that can lead to heat stroke include:

  • being left outside without shade or water on a hot day
  • vigorous exercise in hot weather
  • confinement inside a poorly ventilated area, like a dog house
  • the restricted airways of ‘smashed’ or flat-faced dogs – brachycephalic breeds are more likely to experience heat stroke even in moderate weather conditions
  • long haired dog breeds are also more likely to face heat stroke
  • wearing a muzzle
  • infection causing fever2
  • obesity
  • young and old age in dogs

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke in dogs

Before a dog will suffer a heat stroke, they will become overheated. So it’s important to be an attentive dog parent, and to be able to recognize the signs of overheating in your dog, so you can take action immediately.

As heatstroke progresses, it can cause coma, and even death.

Signs and symptoms of overheating, heat stress, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke in dogs include:

  • panting
  • drooling
  • increased thirst
  • dehydration
  • weakness, falling down
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • hyperventilating
  • dry nose
  • rapid or irregular heart rate
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • elevated body temperature – warm to touch
  • dry, pale gums
  • bright red tongue
  • thick, sticky saliva
  • changes in mental awareness
  • production of only small amounts of urine or no urine
  • blood in vomit or stool
  • staggering
  • muscle tremors
  • shock
  • seizures
  • stoppage of the heart and breathing
  • coma
  • death3

What to do if your dog gets heat stroke

If your dog gets heat stroke, it’s important to bring down their temperature immediately, but safely. Do NOT cool the dog down using ice cold water, as going from one extreme temperature to another can cause other life-threatening medical conditions. If your dog suffers from a heat stroke, follow the steps below to help them cool down:

  • Remove them from the hot area immediately.
  • If your dog is still conscious, let them drink as much cool water as possible. Adding a bit of salt to the water will help the dog replace the minerals it lost through panting. If the dog is unconscious, however, make sure no water enters the nose or mouth.
  • Wet them with water, put them in the bath or shower if possible.
  • Use a fan to increase air circulation around them and cool them off.
  • Lay a wet towel on them.
  • After cooling down your dog, call your vet or an emergency clinic, and take your pet there as quickly and safely as possible.
  • While transporting your dog to the vet, continue lowering their temperature by placing cool, wet towels over the back of their neck.
  • Keep the body temperature around 38.3°C to 39.2°C4 and stop the cooling when the right temperature is reached.

Even if your dog appears to be recovering from heat stroke, you should still bring him/her to the vet, since he may be dehydrated or have other complications.

Heat stroke in dogs – What can I expect at the vet?

In all cases of heat stroke in dogs, including suspected cases, and dogs who seem recovered, you should see your vet immediately. Your vet will be able to determine the severity of your dog’s condition and what kind of treatment is necessary. Treatment by the vet may include any of the following:

  • Emergency cooling
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Airway intubation
  • Gastrointestinal protectants, anti-nausea medication
  • Antibiotics
  • Pain medication
  • Cardiac medication
  • Blood tests
  • Blood/plasma transfusion
  • Ventilation
  • Continuous observation and treatment, often in the intensive care unit3

The best way to deal with heat stroke in dogs is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

dog drinking water from bowl outside

How to prevent heat stroke in dogs

Heat stroke in dogs can (and should) absolutely be prevented. Be aware of the warning signs and symptoms, so you can treat your dog immediately in case it occurs. In addition, keep your dog in safe conditions, so heat stroke won’t occur. To prevent heat stroke in dogs:

  • Never leave your dog in a car with the windows closed, even for “just a minute” or even if the car is parked in the shade. The temperature inside a parked car can quickly get extremely high. In fact, don’t leave your dog inside any hot, enclosed space.
  • Avoid exercising with your dog during the hottest time of day. Limit outdoor activities to the early morning and late evening, when temperatures are lower.
  • Provide your dog access to plenty of cool water and make sure they stay hydrated. Find out how much water your dog needs to drink in a day here.
  • When outdoors, make sure your dog has access to shade for cooling down.
  • Avoid walking on any surfaces where heat is reflected (such as hot sand or concrete).
  • If you travel with your dog in the car, make sure that your dog is well ventilated by placing them in a wired cage or an open basket. Keep the car cool, stop frequently and make sure water is available.
  • Know where your dog is at all times with a GPS dog tracker.

How to keep dogs cool in summer

Due to it’s high temperatures, summer is the season where the risk of heat stroke in dogs is the highest. To keep your dog cool and safe in hot weather conditions, consider these tips:

  • Encourage your dog to stay in the shade, out of direct sunlight.
  • Provide your dog with multiple bowls of water, and add ice cubes in case of very hot weather.
  • Give your dog damp towels, a cooling mat, or cold tile for them to lie on.
  • Let your dog play in a cool water bath, small pool or body of water, if that’s possible. Many dog breeds love swimming and being in the water. Wetting down your dog with cool water or allowing him to swim can help maintain a normal, healthy body temperature. Don’t forget to bring a waterproof gps tracker for safety!
  • Turn on the sprinkler in your garden and let them play in it.
  • Try new games, which don’t involve too much physical activity – like puzzle feeder toys or hiding treats.
  • Use dog-sunscreen if necessary.
  • Give your dog frozen dog treats – (aka pupsicles).
  • Exercise caution when using a muzzle – these can make panting, and thus cooling themselves down, more difficult for the dog.
  • Try out these summer nutrition tips for your dog.

All in all, use common sense and think about how you would feel wearing a fur jacket (that cannot be removed) on a hot summer day!

Conclusion on heat stroke in dogs

Heat stroke in dogs is a highly fatal sickness5, and can affect your dog at a moment’s notice in any situation where they’re not able to properly cool down. This may be due to high temperatures, humidity and/or lack of air circulation. Certain breeds and other dogs, such as those who are obese, or those who have not been acclimated to hot weather, are more predisposed to suffering from heat stroke. There are many symptoms of heat stroke in dogs, which ever dog parent should be aware of. What to do if your dog gets heat stroke? Cool them down immediately but gradually (no ice water), and seek emergency veterinary care. In the worst cases, heat stroke can lead to death, so prevent heat stroke in dogs by following the steps above.

For more information on heat stroke in dogs, check out this video by the vets at Heron Lakes Animal Hospital:

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