Summer Preparedness: Preventing and Identifying Canine Heat Stroke

Summer Preparedness: Preventing and Identifying Canine Heat Stroke

by Kristi Pahr

It’s that time of year again—long days, warm nights, trips to the lake or the pool. Active days in the sun can be great fun for us, but warm temperatures can spell trouble for our four-legged friends. As the mercury rises, dogs become more susceptible to fatal heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a common veterinary emergency during the spring and summer, and if not treated quickly, can result in death. Heat stroke, or hyperthermia, is the result of a body temperature greater than 104 and can cause systemic shock and damage to all the organ systems. The first signs that your dog might be succumbing to the heat are rapid panting and bright red gums and tongue, depression, and weakness.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your pet is showing signs of heat stroke, immediately remove them from the heat and into an indoor or shady area, begin cooling by applying tepid (not cold!) water to your dog’s body, and cover them in wet towels. Head to your vet as quickly as you can.

Your vet will perform a physical exam, which will assess your dog’s overall condition. The vet and staff will continue cooling measures until your dog’s temperature is down to 103 degrees, then they will dry him off and cover him, to prevent his temperature from continuing to drop. Hypothermia can occur secondary to hyperthermia because your dog is unable to regulate his body temperature. Your dog will have at least one IV catheter placed, usually in his front leg, and be put on IV fluids. He will potentially receive an infusion of plasma, also. Blood will be drawn to check for organ damage and clotting problems and your pet’s vital signs will be monitored frequently.

Depending on the severity of the heat stroke, your dog may be hospitalized for several days. Frequently, heat stroke will cause damage to the lining of the digestive tract, resulting in your dog sloughing that tissue. Bloody diarrhea can last for a few days and bloodwork should be monitored to assure your dog isn’t becoming anemic.

The most common problem that occurs secondary to heat stroke is disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC), which causes tiny blood clots to form within the blood vessels, resulting in thrombocytopenia. In other words, all your dog’s platelets get used up making these tiny clots, which means there aren’t enough platelets leftover to stop any other bleeding. This results in hemorrhage. Dogs can develop widespread bruising (ecchymosis) or pinprick bruising (petechia), bloody urine, bloody vomit, and/or bloody diarrhea.

In severe cases, dogs may also develop muscle tremors, seizures, disorientation and stupor, or coma as a result of heat damage to their central nervous system. Seizures and tremors can be treated with certain medications, while dogs will receive supportive care for disorientation, stupor, and coma.

Kidney and liver damage and loss of the intestinal lining can also occur.


A few simple steps and a bit of common sense can prevent heat stroke and keep your dog comfortable all summer long.

1) Provide water at all times.

For trips to the dog park or hikes in the woods, pack water with you and bring along a collapsible water bowl for your pet.

2) Pay attention to panting.

Short-nosed, or brachycephalic, breeds, like pugs, bulldogs, and boxers, are more susceptible to hyperthermia than other breeds, so be aware of panting and other signs that your dog is uncomfortable.

3) Never leave your dog in the car.

Even with the windows down. Never.

4) Protect older and high-risk pets.

Pets that suffer from any chronic conditions, including old age, obesity, heart disease, and other disease states, should be kept indoors on hot days.

5) Avoid exercising your pet midday.

Keep walks or runs to the cooler morning or evening hours, or just skip it entirely.

6) Make sure shade is available.

If you take your dog to the beach or the lake, provide shelter, like a tent, so your dog is able to get out of the sun to cool off.

Dog heat stroke is serious!

Heat stroke is a serious condition that requires immediate veterinary treatment to prevent and treat complications. Dogs that suffer moderate heat strokes can recover quickly and may be discharged soon after they are stable. More severe hyperthermia can result in several days to weeks inpatient veterinary treatment. The most severe cases result in death. By following a few simple rules, you can avoid it entirely and keep your pet healthy and safe. If it’s hot for you, it’s too hot for them.