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Save a Dog from Heatstroke – Here’s How

Let’s be honest. It’s happened to many of us. We misjudge. We’re misinformed. We get delayed. Then we return to our vehicle and find one of our dogs in distress.

We all know how dangerous it is for dogs to be in cars and vans and trucks in warm weather. We’ve been warned and reminded and scared by friends’ experiences.

Yet, it still happens. We are human after all. We do make mistakes.

So, when it does happen, what do you do?

Dogs can get overheated, often resulting in heatstroke, in a number of different situations, not just when left in cars. © Can Stock Photo Inc./thesupe87

Many years ago, I had my close call with a Yorkshire Terrier that my husband and I loved – nearly to death. We were on a family trip in the spring on the border of Nevada and Utah. A friend was taking care of our big dogs, but we didn’t want to leave Rose home for the long weekend. She was so small that she was easy to take everywhere – except into the restaurant where we were having Sunday brunch before we all parted ways and returned to our homes around the Southwest.

It wasn’t a particularly warm morning. The van was huge and cool. The windows were open quite a bit. And Rose was very small. Surely it wouldn’t warm up enough by the time we finished brunch to get hot in there.

But it did.

When we returned to the van, she was panting heavily. We knew instinctively that she was in trouble. And we were in the middle of nowhere.

So, we took her onto some grass in the shade of a tree, poured water over her to soak her coat and put a wet T-shirt on her. One veterinarian practiced in the tiny town with the big hotel where we were staying. We couldn’t reach him, but we found a vet in a distant town and immediately sped there. Fortunately for Rose and us, the vet was able to save her. And we learned our lesson. We were very, very lucky.

As it turns out, we did the right thing without even knowing it. We had what we needed handy to cool her down, though we didn’t waste time getting her professional help either.

That’s exactly what Ann Hohenhaus, D.V.M., DACVIM, of the Animal Medical Center in New York, recommends: If you have refrigerated water handy, pour it over your dog, completely soak a towel in water, put your dog in the backseat covered with the wet towel and get to the veterinary clinic. But don’t waste time trying to find cold water or ice if it’s not readily available, she says. Just get the dog to a veterinarian immediately. “Don’t spend an hour trying to cool down the dog,” she says.

It’s not just car incidents like ours that can lead to heatstroke. Brachycephalic breeds experience it if they do too much exercise that they’re unaccustomed to. Any dog exercised in hot, especially hot and humid, weather is at risk. A dog confined to a run or kennel near areas of sun-exposed concrete or blacktop can overheat. Even when in the shade, if the temperature is just too high, a dog can get heatstroke. Dogs with any health condition that impairs normal breathing can suffer it too.

Also, it’s important to remember that just because you might be able to tolerate 98 degrees in the shade with a cool drink in hand, it doesn’t mean your dogs can. You can sweat – like crazy if you need to. You also can tell when it’s getting to be too much and leave the event if need be, go into an air-conditioned building on the grounds, or even drive around in your car with the air conditioning on full blast. Your dogs can do none of those things, except sweat a tiny bit through their paws. And pant. And pant. And pant.

“Don’t leave your dog anywhere you wouldn’t leave Grandma on a hot day,” Hohenhaus says. “If you think about it in those terms, Grandma is not as able to take care of herself as well as you and I are. Dogs can’t turn the AC on. We have to think ahead for them.”

You never know when you might need to respond to a dog with heatstroke. You may be watching a neighbors’ dogs, visiting in a climate unlike your own, just walking down the street on a summer day or end up in a situation you simply weren’t expecting.

If you have or see a dog that’s panting heavily, and has “ropey” saliva and purple or gray gums, it’s very likely heatstroke. Hohenhaus says a dog that also can’t stand or move around is in serious trouble.

“Veterinary clinics have efficient ways to cool down dogs, and the sooner the dog gets to the clinic, the better the potential outcome.“Once they cross the line, it’s over,” Hohenhaus says. “We had a couple die last week.”

To be ready just in case one of your dogs or someone else’s gets into trouble while traveling, or at a dog show or performance event, add to your cell-phone contact list the telephone number of a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic at your destination and, if on a daylong drive, between your day’s starting and ending points. Hohenhaus also says OnStar is a good way to find an emergency vet while on the road. If you’re not alone, you can also ask your passenger to locate and call one with a smart phone.

Also before you leave home, pack into your vehicle two bath towels big enough to cover your dog and enough refrigerated water to pour over a small dog (standing in your ice chest, Hohenhaus suggests) or to soak the towels.

You don’t have to worry about your dog getting too cold, she says. That can happen in veterinary clinics, but only because they’re prepared for all kinds of overheated dog emergencies, including spiking fevers. But using cold water, even ice packs beneath your dog, while you drive to a clinic, won’t harm a dog with heatstroke, she says.

If a dog is merely panting heavily and seems overheated, but can still drink and move around, you’re probably safe cooling it down on your own.

But if the dog has gray or purple lips, or can’t drink and stand on its own, Hohenhaus advises proceeding immediately to a clinic. Heatstroke can lead to seizures, coma and death. Only a veterinarian will be able to tell you when the dog has recovered.

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.
  • Riverview July 12, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    I have an app on my iphone that will tell me the vets closest to me wherever I am with phone numbers hour and etc. Thankfully I’ve never had to use it but I have it in case I do.

    Leslie Racine

    • Susan Chaney
      Susan Chaney July 14, 2012 at 5:45 PM

      That’s a great app, Leslie. Thanks for sharing it. I’m going to put it on my phone today!

  • ljmilder
    Linda Milder June 21, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    With Brachycephalic breeds cool the head first as they tend to have very high blood pressure. We have Pekingese and shave all bellies for the summer, even our specials. That way they can cool quicker. We travel with ice packs and wet towels.

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