Carol Woodman walked across her Plant City backyard to her 1-year-old Australian Shepherd Max’s kennel on a typically sweltering day in May 2004. She found him laying on his side with his eyes wide open, panting heavily and completely unresponsive. She immediately called the vet.
“I was crying and told them that my boy was dying,” said Woodman.
Woodman, who bred Australian Shepherds competitively, recognized the symptoms of heat stroke.
She wet Max down with the garden hose and took his temperature. The thermometers reading rose to 109.9, the highest possible for the device. She rushed him to the vet, but too much damage had already been done.
“Three hours later he was dead,” said Woodman. “The heat had cooked his liver and kidneys and they never started working again.”
People lather their children with sunscreen, shade them with hats and umbrellas and fret when they seem the least bit dehydrated, but many dog owners remain unaware of the dangers heat poses to their unprotected pets in their permanent fur coats.
Organizations such as the Humane Society do not collect statistics on heat stroke-related dog deaths, but Eva Davita, a veterinarian at Animal Emergency of Countryside, estimated that even though she only works weekends in a small clinic, she treats 10 or more dogs every summer for heat stroke and sees at least that many that are brought in die from the condition.
“Dog owners in Florida, during the summer especially, should be extremely concerned about heat stroke,” said Michelle Perez, an investigator with Hillsborough County Animal Services. “We know that we will be responding to a lot of heat-related issues during the summer. A lot of people just don’t realize how hot it is for dogs.”
Davita said dogs have a higher susceptibility to heat stroke than people for several reasons. They cool themselves much less effectively than people because they have few sweat glands and rely primarily on panting for heat dissipation. Dogs also regulate their activity much less than people. A person knows to rest and drink when hot and thirsty, but dogs lack that intuition.
Kathryn Jahnigan, associate PR director for the American Human Association, stressed the need for owners to pay special attention to how their dog feels.
“A dog is not going to come up to you and say, ‘Hey mom, I’m not feeling well,'” Jahnigan said. “Dogs need to depend on us to know when they need to rest.”
Davita said that most heat strokes occur to dogs running on the beach, dogs whose owners take them out on the water and dogs exercising during the hottest hours of the day.
“Most people are aware of the dangers of leaving dogs in cars, so I don’t see as many heat strokes from that,” said Davita. “But many owners don’t know how dangerous it is for a dog to be outside on a hot day, especially if they’re exercising.”
Davita recommended that people take their dogs out only in the mornings and evenings. Dogs that must be taken out during the heat of the day require ample water, frequent breaks and intermittent shade, she said.
Clearwater resident Josie Diaz remembers the day that her family’s Bulldog died from heat exposure. In the summer of 2003, Diaz’s son David went to a friend’s house and left the dog outside, knowing that his mother would be home soon.
“When I got home two hours later, the dog couldn’t move and his tongue was purple,” said Diaz.
Diaz wet him and gave him water. He started walking around and seemed to have recovered, but then collapsed.
Diaz took the dog to an emergency veterinarian, where he died from a heat stroke-related heart attack.
Many owners are unaware of some of the symptoms of heat stroke, thinking that their dogs just need some rest, said Jahnigan. She listed excessive panting or difficulty breathing, unresponsiveness, difficulty rising, increased heart rate and respiratory rate and redder-than-normal gums as early signs of heat stroke. Bloody diarrhea, vomiting, collapse, stupor, seizures and coma are symptoms of more advanced heat stroke.
“If you think your pet has any of these signs, get them out of the heat immediately,” said Jahnigan.
Taking the dog’s temperature is the next step after removing the dog from the heat. Temperatures above 104 warrant an immediate call to the vet, said Jahnigan.
Spraying — not immersing — dogs with cool water, putting water-soaked towels on their head, neck and feet, blowing air on them from a fan and rubbing small amounts of rubbing alcohol on their front and back paw pads are effective means of lowering the dog’s body temperature, said Jahnigan. Cold water and ice bags actually inhibit cooling by constricting blood vessels and making heat dissipation more difficult.
Older dogs, overweight dogs and dogs with pre-existing medical conditions cool themselves even less effectively and have an even greater susceptibility to heat stroke. Short-nosed breeds of dogs like Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Pugs and Pekingese also fall into the category of at-risk dogs.
“I treated an older, overweight dog who suffered a heat stroke walking in the shade in the morning,” said Davita. “And I’ve seen a Bulldog that died from heat stroke while inside the house.”
A dog’s normal body temperature is between 101 and 102 degrees, said Davita. A body temperature above 104 warrants concern, above 107 means severe damage and above 109 indicates possible irreversible damage.
The chain of events set off when a dog’s temperature reaches critical levels is very serious and often results in deadly physiological consequences for the dog, said Davita. First, the dog’s circulatory system shuts down from dehydration and the dog goes into shock. The animal’s high internal temperature often causes irreversible liver and kidney damage. The lining of the intestinal tract suffers damage that can lead to secondary infection. Internal bleeding and hemorrhaging occur in more serious cases. Brain and central nervous system damage are the final occurrences prior to death.
Both Davita and Jahnigan emphasize the need to call the vet and take the dog in for professional treatment if the vet advises it.
“I think that’s the biggest mistake people make,” said Davita. “Even if the dog seems to recover without medical treatment, they may be missing things. It’s really important if you have any concerns to have the animal evaluated immediately.”