The Truth About Heat Stroke

By Dr. Nancy Turner, on behalf of Vickery Place Animal Hospital, Highland Park Animal Hospital and the Canine Country Club and Wellness Center

In the interest of full disclosure, this is my second attempt at this post. When I sent my original draft to colleagues for review, they thought my wording was a little too strong and could use some toning down. For those of you that know me, this should be no surprise! I tend to be passionate about certain topics, and heat stroke is one of those issues that really gets me fired-up (please excuse the pun).

Having treated numerous heat stroke emergencies over the years, I can say that there are few things more upsetting than having a client lose a pet in this way. Make no mistake; your pet can die of heat stroke!

We all know what can cause heat stroke: leaving your pet in a car on a humid or hot day, exercising your dog in hot or humid weather, having a breed of dog that is at higher risk of heat stroke, or having an older dog that cannot compensate as well in the heat.

We all know why dogs get heat stroke: they have fur coats, they don’t sweat, and they only dissipate heat by panting (and a minuscule amount through their pads).

Some of us even know what happens to a dog during a heat stroke event:

If an unduly hot environment prevents the normal cooling process, blood is diverted away from important organs such as the brain, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. When these organs do not receive enough blood, they begin to fail.

And this failure can happen in minutes:

In a study of 54 dogs with heatstroke, 50 percent of the dogs died. However, 100 percent of the dogs that were given first aid at home and arrived at the veterinary hospital within 90 minutes of being found survived.

You read that correctly: 50% of dogs died! But if treatment was started within 90 minutes there is a great chance of survival. That is not very long! Recognizing your pet has heat stroke and seeking medical attention as quickly as possible can truly save your pet’s life.

So if we know what causes heat stroke, why dogs are prone to it, and what happens physically to the dog during a heat stroke episode, why do dogs die every year from heat stroke?

Because people think “my dog can handle the heat”, they think “my dog will stop before she gets overheated”, they think “it won’t happen to my dog”, and quite frankly, sometimes, we just aren’t paying attention.

Take it from a doctor that has treated too many of these sad, preventable cases: your dog IS hot, they often DON’T stop until it’s too late, and it CAN happen to your dog.

So, I apologize if this blog is a little too blunt, but I am begging you! Protect your pet this summer. Be an advocate for them. Be smart in the weather and seek medical attention if you are even slightly concerned that your pet is overheated. It WILL save your dog’s life.