As temperatures rise it's important for dog owners to be able to recognise the signs of heatstroke and feel confident they can cool down their pet safely if needed.
What is heatstroke?
Heatstroke is a serious condition that occurs when the body is unable to cool itself after exposure to hot temperatures.
When dogs are too hot they pant and sweat through their paws to bring their body temperature back to normal levels. But when they’re having a heatstroke they are unable to cool down on their own. If untreated heatstroke can be fatal.
Understanding what causes heatstroke can help you prevent it from happening.
Signs your dog might be suffering from heatstroke
Early warning signs that your pet is struggling in the heat include:
- Panting heavily - dogs pant as a means to cool themselves down so some panting can be normal and not a major source of concern. But if your pet is panting on a warm day, and is drooling a lot or foaming at the mouth, or generally, looking 'hot and bothered' it would be best to take action to avoid heatstroke. It's important to also keep in mind what's normal for your dog. For example, flat-faced dogs already have to breathe a bit heavier and so are at a higher risk of getting overheated.
- Appearing to be upset or distressed
- Dribbling more than usual
- Foaming at the mouth
- Increased heart rate
If no measures are taken to cool your dog down these will progress to severe symptoms such as:
- Bright red gums
- Loss of co-ordination
- Bleeding from their nose or mouth
- Tremors or seizures
These can be fatal, which is why spotting the early signs and being able to respond quickly is so important.
How to treat a dog for heatstroke at home and first aid tips
If you are concerned your pet is suffering from heatstroke phone your vet straight away, even if it seems to be getting better. The heatstroke may have damaged your pet’s organs so it might still need veterinary treatment.
Bought By Many customers can also see if a FirstVet vet is available for a video call. Our customers can use the services for free 24/7.
However, there are things you can and might need to do at home before being able to safely transport your pet to the vet.
Some studies have shown that starting gentle cooling at home can increase survival rates. Your vet may ask you to begin cooling treatment before you make your way to the practice.
Tips on how to do this safely
Note: Do not use ice-cold water as it can cause shock and avoid cooling down your pet too quickly – a gradual reduction in body temperature is safest.
- Move your pet into the shade.
- Dampen your pet’s body with cool, room temperature water using wet towels and sponges. Do not cover your pet with the towels as this would increase its body temperature – simply use them to deposit water on your dog's fur.
- If possible, put your dog in front of a fan once its fur is damp.
- Place something cool - like an ice pack wrapped in a towel - on the areas of the groin, armpits, belly and spine. This is where major blood vessels run so it will cool the blood effectively.
- Offer small amounts of cool water to drink - a couple of mouthfuls at a time.
- Apply tepid water to the paw pads at regular intervals.
- Avoid hosing your pet down.
- Do not submerge your pet in water.
- Try to count your pet’s breathing rate and make a note of it every 5 minutes until you reach your vet.
- Make your way to the vet practice as soon as your pet seems more settled.
- If possible, transport your pet to the vet in an air-conditioned car (set to cool, not ice cold). If your car doesn’t have air-conditioning, leave the windows slightly open to create a breeze. If your pet dries off, do not use more water.
Factors that can increase a dog’s risk of developing heatstroke
Health factors that put dogs at higher risk
- Age - very young or old dogs may be a higher risk
- Breed – brachycephalic (flat-faced dogs) breeds
- Pre-existing heart or breathing conditions
Regardless of your dog’s age, weight or breed, there are situations that can cause heatstroke in even the healthiest of dogs.
Situations and activities can be risk factors for heatstroke are
- Lack of water
- Being in the sun too long
- Enclosed hot space
- Lack of shade
- Excessive humidity
- Intense physical exertion/exercise
When the weather gets hot, make sure your dog has plenty of access to shade and cool spots.
Preventing heatstroke in pets
- Provide fresh, clean, cool drinking water inside and outside.
- Put ice in their water or make frozen treats for them to lick.
- Ensure your pet has access to plenty of shaded areas throughout the day.
- Keep your pet out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day.
- Never leave pets alone in closed vehicles - on any day, for any length of time - not even if the windows are down.
- Exercise dogs in the coolest parts of the day - before dawn or after dusk. If you cannot hold your hand or foot on the ground for more than a couple of seconds because it feels too hot then do not walk your dog. Learn more about walking your dog in the summer.
- Place cooling mats around the house for your dog to lie on.
- Provide a paddling pool for them to stand in. Note that dogs should be supervised when around water/paddling pools at all times
- Keep your pet’s weight in a healthy range.
How vets treat heatstroke
If your pet needs to go to a vet it will receive a physical exam and their heart rate and core body temperature will be checked. If their condition is severe, they will be admitted for urgent care.
Treatments such as intravenous fluids and oxygen may be given to stabilise their condition. Regular blood tests will be done to determine the level of internal damage the body has suffered and whether any organs have been affected.
Monitoring and treating a pet with heatstroke quickly is critical. Even pets that appear to improve can deteriorate rapidly 24 to 48 hours after the event.
How to help a pet trapped in a hot car
Dogs die in hot cars, so if you see a dog locked in a hot car it might be best to dial 999 if it looks in distress. See how long it will take them to attend, they may suggest you also call the RSPCA.