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Too Hot to Trot: Dealing with Heatstroke

By Susan McCullough

In one of the most riveting scenes in Donald McCaig’s classic story, Nop’s Trials,* the story’s central character, Nop, a Border Collie, collapses with heatstroke while competing in a herding trial.

In the story, Nop is reunited with his owner, Lewis Burkholder after surviving dognapping and many subsequent misadventures. Although Nop’s ordeal has left him in poor physical condition, Lewis mistakenly decides to run the dog in a herding trial. But Nop can’t finish his run. Under the hot June sky, the dog’s heartbeat and breathing accelerate, his body quivers and he collapses. Lewis runs to Nop, picks him up and immerses him in a nearby water tank. The dousing, plus some help from a nearby veterinarian, saves the dog’s life.

Nop is a fictitious dog that survives heatstroke. Unfortunately, plenty of real-life dogs also face this condition—and some aren’t as lucky as Nop.

Signs of Heatstroke
Any dog can fall victim to heatstroke, but show dogs and performance dogs are especially vulnerable. That’s because conformation shows, obedience competitions, agility trials, and herding trials are often held outdoors during the warmest, most humid times of the year. For dogs with long coats, dark coats or short muzzles, the risk is even higher. Other dogs at risk are those that are very young, very old, severely overweight, or, like Nop, in poor physical condition.

Environmental conditions that can cause heatstroke include exercise, excessive heat—especially when coupled with high humidity—and confinement in a relatively small space such as a parked car or unventilated garage.

When a dog has heatstroke, his life is in immediate jeopardy. Heatstroke impairs a dog’s heart and lung function and leads to shock, accelerating the rate at which the body systems stop functioning.

In addition to the signs Nop exhibited—rapid heartbeat and breathing, quivering body, and collapse—other common signs of heatstroke include:

  • Rectal temperature greater than 105oF (normal is 100 – 102.5oF)
  • Heavy panting with dark red tongue and gums
  • Confusion
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures

If your dog exhibits the signs of heatstroke, emergency treatment is essential to save his life. You need to do exactly what Nop’s owner did—cool the dog quickly. In Nop’s case, immersion in a water tank saved his life. Other options include applying water to the dog from a garden hose, bucket or spray bottle and concentrating on the face, neck, footpads, groin, and armpits. Avoid using ice water; it may cause hypothermia. You can also use a fan to help keep air moving over the surface of the dog’s body.

It’s also crucial to take your dog to a veterinarian for further treatment. A veterinarian can treat the dog for shock, respiratory distress or other problems induced by the heat.

Preventing Heatstroke
As Nop’s owner discovered, competition on a warm summer day can pose a serious risk to a dog’s life, especially if the animal is in less-than-optimum health. Experts offer the following ideas to help a dog keep its cool:

Get out of the car. Once you and your dog arrive at an event, both of you should leave the parked car. Even on a moderately warm day of 80oF, the interior of a parked car can reach a lethal 120oF or more in a matter of minutes—even if windows are cracked open.

Make some shade. Natural shade from trees isn’t always available, so bring along a heat-reflecting canopy and make your own shade. The canopy will protect you and your dog from the sun, and also provide shelter from a sudden shower.

Bring plenty of water. A cooler filled with bottles of water will help you and your dog replace precious body fluids lost to the heat. Make sure water is continuously available for your dog, or offer it as often as possible. Be careful not to let your dog drink excessive amounts in a short period of time after intense exercise – moderate amounts given more frequently is better.

Let your dog lay on water. A cooling mat, soaked in water or filled with special crystals and then placed in the bottom of your dog’s crate, can go a long way toward helping your canine companion keep cool. Another option is a cooling bandana, which works in the same way as the cooling mat, but is tied around the dog’s neck. Both products are available from dog product catalogs.

Make him quit. Many dogs—particularly high-drive herding and agility competitors—literally do not know when to quit exercising in hot weather. It’s up to you to use good judgment and decide when to stop an outdoor exercise session.

Consider the weather. If you know the weather will be hot and the event will be held outdoors, particularly in the afternoon, think twice about bringing your dog. No event is worth jeopardizing the life of your canine companion