Leaving Your Dog Cooling His Heels At Home

I can’t believe there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know it’s criminally stupid to leave pets, children, grandmas or any living thing in a car in the heat, even with the windows down, even in the shade, even for just five minutes. Just don’t do it! But there are a lot of other ways heatstroke can develop that may not be as blatantly obvious.

Flat-faced dogs such as pugs or bulldogs can’t take the heat even outside the oven temperatures of the car. Older animals free in the yard may not be able to rise easily to move into the shade or they may sleep so soundly they bake in the sun. Don’t leave these pets outside in summer for more time than necessary, especially if they are not being watched.

Dogs that live in air-conditioned homes need slow introduction to the heat of summer. Don’t just put them out and leave them for hours. Common sense dictates that animals with obesity, chronic respiratory or heart problems require special care also. Shade can be supplemented with a small wading pool for cooling dips.

There is a lot of debate over whether or not to clip long-haired dogs to aid cooling during summer months. Some say the coat actually insulates against the heat, arguing that even camels have fairly thick coats for that reason. And, since dogs don’t sweat much to cool themselves, the coat doesn’t interfere. Mainly they lose heat by panting which is one reason muzzles that hold the mouth closed are so dangerous. A compromise to shaving that makes sense to me is to clip shaggy dogs along the belly, allowing them to cool down when laying on cold surfaces. Keep in mind if you choose to clip your pet that occasionally coats do not regrow quickly or completely. Many groomers will also “strip” a dog’s coat by repeatedly running a bladed comb through it. This results in a thinner overcoat (the long guard hairs of the coat) reducing the insulation effect that a heavier coat may have.

Signs of hyperthermia or heatstroke begin with excessive panting and restlessness, progressing to lots of drooling and unsteadiness, then collapse. The normal body temperature for a dog is 38 to 39 degrees Celsius. At 41?, the risk of serious brain and organ damage or death is high.

It’s vital to get heatstroke victims to a veterinarian as quickly as possible, but care along the way can make a big difference to the outcome. Apply towels soaked in cool tap water to the animal’s body. Don’t use refrigerated water or ice as that could actually inhibit cooling by causing surface vessels to constrict, trapping the heat deeper inside. Take a rectal temperature reading if possible. The goal is to reduce the dog’s body temperature to about 39?. Give water orally only if your pet will drink it voluntarily.

Of course, the best way to deal with heatstroke is by preventing it. I’ve already read of one person in Hamilton facing criminal charges after her dog died in a hot car last month. Hard to believe isn’t it?

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist

Hillcrest Animal Hospital

July 2011