The most important thing to realise is that dogs and cats DO NOT sweat like humans do. They release heat through their tongues primarily, and to a lesser extent their foot pads and nose. This is much less effective than sweating – so even if you are comfortable, your dog may be too hot. This means that when you leave an animal in an enclosed space such as a car, even if the vehicle is in the shade and even if the outside temperature is cool, the temperature and humidity build up very quickly once panting begins. The animal will struggle to get rid of the excess heat quickly enough and its body temperature will start to rise above the normal 39 degrees celsius, often in a matter of minutes.
Big dogs (St Bernard), dogs with flat faces (Boxer, Pug), overweight, older, dehydrated or anxious pets are all more likely to develop heat stroke. Remember that even relatively cool areas can be dangerous if the animal is unable to access cold water.
Heat stroke can be life-threatening. Breathing will become rapid, frantic and noisy. The tongue and mucous membranes will become bright red, the saliva thick, and vomiting may occur. Animals with heat stroke tend to walk very slowly, with a panicked expression, and be unaware of their environment. Once the body temperature exceeds 41-42 degrees celsius, damage can occur to the kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, heart and brain. If left unchecked, your pet will become progressively weaker, go into a coma and may die.
To help, you can hose down your dog with cool water (not cold). Let the water run continuously in the groin area as there are large numbers of blood vessels there which will allow for more rapid cooling of the blood. Do not cover your pet with a wet towel as this will limit the evaporation. Your vet will perform a thorough check and start any necessary treatment when you arrive at the vet clinic.
The most important message is this – heat stroke is usually avoidable:
If you suspect heat stroke, please ring to let us know you are coming, so that treatment can be started more quickly, which will give a better chance of a successful outcome.