Cool shade, rest breaks, and plenty of water can go a long way to help your pup avoid heatstroke, but a veterinarian explains how critical this condition can become without proper awareness.

By Tracey L. Kelley
July 06, 2021
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We know for certain that anything we want to do, our dogs are eager to join us! Summertime fun allows playful pups to enjoy any number of outdoor activities, from running and hiking to kayaking and swimming. However, this means we have to dedicate more attention to their well-being.

Bonnie Bragdon, DVM, MS, is co-founder and president of the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association. "Our canine companions' exuberant approach to life can quickly put them in harm's way," she says. "When the outdoor temperature rises, it's important to carefully monitor dogs for heatstroke." This condition is also known as hyperthermia.

Understanding not only reasons for heatstroke in dogs but also how to cool them down, prepare for veterinary care, and prevent future incidents gives you better peace of mind. So here's what you need to know.

Causes of Heatstroke in Dogs

Bragdon outlines the top reasons for heatstroke in dogs, including: 

  • Being trapped in a car during hot weather (seriously, never leave dogs alone in cars!)
  • Excessive strenuous activity without appropriate rest, shade, and conditioning.
  • Physical impairment which leads to heat intolerance.
  • Being housed without access to shade and water.
  • Overheating during grooming.

"Brachycephalic breeds are more susceptible to heat intolerance. These dogs have short snouts, small nostrils, and narrow windpipes, making it difficult for them to expel heat by panting," Bragdon says.

Well-known brachycephalic breeds include boxers, chow chows, English bulldogs, mastiffs, pugs, and shih tzus, but review this more complete list to see if your pup is on it. Additionally, Bragdon says heatstroke is more commonly reported in golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers than other breeds.

She adds that other physical attributes could contribute to heat intolerance:

"Unfortunately, inattentive dog ownership is probably the leading cause of heatstroke in dogs," Bragdon says.

This chart helps you determine when to be outside with your dog and for how long based on the weather and any special circumstances, such as whether he's a brachycephalic dog breed, a senior dog, or has health issues.

too hot or too cold chart
Credit: Illustrations / Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Heatstroke vs. Heat Exhaustion: What's the Difference?

Essentially, unchecked heat exhaustion causes heatstroke. Bragdon says while dogs tend to run hotter than humans anyway—usually with an average upper level temperature of approximately 103 degrees F—heat exhaustion indicates your pup is in the early stages of distress.

"It's important to carefully monitor your dog for signs of heat exhaustion, which include excessive panting, lowered energy, unwillingness to move or walk, and rising body temperature," Bragdon says. "If ignored, heat exhaustion leads to heatstroke as a dog is no longer able to thermoregulate and core body temperature exceeds 105 degrees F." Another possible sign of heat exhaustion in your dog is a heat rash, which often develops in sensitive areas on his body after long-term exposure to hot and humid weather.

Although some dogs sweat, it's more a sign of anxiety and stress, and doesn't help them cool down. They actually thermoregulate by panting: evaporation of moisture on their tongue and inside their mouth helps them chill out.

Signs and Symptoms of Heatstroke in Dogs

If your doggo is with you on an excursion, it might be challenging to pick up on those initial cues of heat exhaustion, so if you notice any of the following symptoms of heatstroke, be prepared to take action right away. Bragdon says your pup might display symptoms such as:

  • A body temperature over 105 degrees F 
  • Collapse
  • High heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Diarrhea, drooling, or vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal gum color
  • Abdominal pain

A dog's average temperature is anywhere from 99.5 to 102.5 degrees F. To safely check it and make sure they don't have a fever, use a rectal digital thermometer. A plastic baby thermometer works well, too.

Dog Heatstroke First Aid and Treatment

If your dog presents any symptoms of heatstroke, Bragdon recommends that you bring him inside at once.

"If you suspect your dog is overheating, place him or her inside where you can cool the room with air conditioning or a fan," she says. "If you're outside without this access, a handy vehicle with air conditioning can be a lifesaver. Or if you're on a long hike and your dog is struggling with the heat, an early dip in cool, shallow water is better than attempting a long hike back to the car."

Bragdon says to seek immediate medical attention if he's non-responsive, his temperature stays above 103 degrees F, he has diarrhea or is vomiting, or he can't stop panting. "Labored breathing is a sign your dog is unable to normally thermoregulate by expelling heat through the respiratory tract," she says. Pre-cool the car and alert the veterinary clinic that you're bringing in a dog with heatstroke.

If your dog seems to calm down a bit after a few minutes in a chilled, shady area, you can administer cooling techniques as a form of first aid before taking him to the vet. Here's what Bragdon recommends:

  • Soak towels in cool, not cold, water. Don't use ice, ice packs, or alcohol, as this may result in extreme rapid cooling.
  • Place your dog on the towels and, if a larger pet, perhaps another around his neck.
  • Note the time, and take his temperature every couple of minutes. 
  • If he's up to it, let him have little sips of water at room temperature or with a little chicken broth. However, don't force him to drink.
  • When his temperature reaches 103 degrees F, note the time again so you can tell the vet how long your pup's temperature was elevated.

Then pre-cool the car and call the vet clinic to tell the staff you're bringing in a dog with heatstroke. "Seek veterinary attention even if your dog appears to return to normal," Bragdon says. "Complications can frequently occur secondary to heatstroke."

bulldog panting outside
Credit: Victoria Rak / Shutterstock

How To Treat Heatstroke in Dogs

Priority Pet Hospital states that a veterinary team treats heatstroke in dogs by:

  • Continuing cooldown treatment.
  • Administering IV fluids, oxygen, and drugs for vomiting and other symptoms, if necessary.
  • Monitoring for shock.
  • Testing blood to determine more severe health complications, such as bleeding disorders, kidney failure, and organ damage.

How long heatstroke symptoms last in dogs really depends. As you might expect, puppies and seniors, as well as pets with pre-existing health concerns, are most at risk for medical issues. "Early intervention will prevent life-threatening complications, which can occur rapidly with heatstroke," Bragdon says. Generally, if a dog shows signs of recovery within 24–48 hours at the clinic, he'll likely be okay.

Long-Term Effects of Heatstroke in Dogs

In most cases, dogs require hospitalization for about a week to fully recover. Priority Pet Hospital indicates that some dogs need transfusions of plasma or treatment for brain swelling. Occasionally, heatstroke causes seizures in dogs and other organ complications.

How To Prevent Heatstroke in Dogs

Our canine friends can certainly enjoy the outdoors without concern about heat exhaustion or heatstroke if you put the proper measures in place. "My own dogs live primarily outside in a variety of conditions including the heat of summer," Bragdon says. "They have access to a large, shaded garage with a fan and plenty of water, as well as cool shady patches of dirt for digging and napping."

She says because they live outside, her dogs gradually acclimated to changes in seasonal temperatures, but you could always add misting fans or doggie pools to your pet's playground. And give them sweet summertime treats, like watermelon popsicles!

Even with her outdoor dogs, Bragdon still limits physical activity during the heat of the day, walking them in the late evening or early morning. This is an especially good point for exercising pets who stay mostly indoors and aren't accustomed to activity during hot weather. Bragdon says if your dog must be active during the heat of the day, plan for frequent rest breaks in shady areas. "Also have plenty of water on hand and carry a rectal thermometer to closely monitor your dog's ability to cope with the stress of hot weather," she adds.

She also recommends booking time at an indoor doggie daycare facility rather than risk your pup overheating during outdoor activities.