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Canine Health in the Heat

It is now mid-July and we are experiencing the heat of summer.  Some of the areas of the United States, such as the southwest are used to experiencing 100 degree plus temperatures.  Many areas are experiencing record breaking heat that they just aren’t used to.  For us as humans, it can be easy to combat this heat; we take off clothing, go in the swimming pool, take a cool shower, turn on the air conditioning and fans, etc.  For our canines though, they rely on US to keep them comfortable.  When our bodies get hot, we start to sweat to help cool our bodies, but canines only sweat to a small degree from their paws pads.  Even for a giant breed with huge paws, this is not a very large area to be sweating from to control heat.  The other way that canines control their body temperature is by panting, which is an attempt to exchange warm air with cool air.  But, panting isn’t really efficient either when the air temperature is close to or about their body temperature.

Most pet canines have the luxury of staying indoors in the air conditioning or if outdoors they find shade or dig and make themselves a bed in the cool dirt.  Working canines on the other hand, are leaving the air conditioned house and have to work in the heat as we do.  Years ago, canines would be put in the back of a cruiser and had limited air conditioning, which in many cases ended up being an open window.  Thankfully today, we have many options for keeping our canines cool in the summer (and warm in the winter).  We have air conditioning for the canine compartment, thermostatically controlled cooling fans, electronic temperature warning devices that alert us and can lower a window, and security devices that allows us to keep the car running and our canines cool while we are out of the car.

All this is great, but we still must be paying attention to our canine partner and what signs they are showing when it comes to heat stroke and dehydration.  Here is a list of a few things that can cause heat stroke in canines:

  • Strenuous exercise/work in hot, humid conditions
  • Long exposure to hot concrete or asphalt surfaces
  • No fresh water or shade in hot weather
  • History of heat stroke
  • Confined to car in hot weather without temperature control devices
  • Hear and/or lung disease that prevents efficient breathing

Temperatures rise and canine’s panting is common, but what we must watch for is heavy panting and difficulty breathing along with bright red tongue and mucous membranes.  The saliva becomes thick and canines will often vomit.  I’m sure most canine handlers don’t keep a rectal thermometer in their canine first aid kit, but it isn’t a bad idea to add one.  The normal body temperature for a canine is 100.5°F to 102.5°F.  When the body temperature gets into the 104°F to 110°F range, your canine is in the danger zone and generally becomes progressively unsteady and will pass bloody diarrhea.  The lips and mucous membranes will turn gray as shock set in, followed by collapse, seizures, coma and death rapidly follows.

When you’re on the chase for the armed robber suspect and your blood is pumping a million miles an hours, as well as your canines; but you cannot forget to watch for the signs of heat stroke.  We often think of our canine as being amazing and will do whatever we ask of him or her, but they can succumb to the heat just as we can. 

Unfortunately, things happen and you may need to deal with your canine getting heat stroke.  Remember, heat stroke can be fatal.  Although you may want to just rush your canine to the veterinarian, there are several things that you can do prior to help your canine’s recovery process prior to that vet visit.  First off, you need to remove your canine from the heat, at minimum into the shade, but preferably in an air conditioned space.  Hopefully you have a rectal thermometer in order to determine how severe it is and for monitoring the recovery.  Mild cases may be resolved just by moving into a cool environment.  You will want to start rapid cooling if the body temperature is above 104°F, by spraying the canine with a garden hose or immersing in a tub of cool water (not ice water) for a minute or two.  If you use a garden hose, don’t forget to let the hot water run out and become cool before spraying your canine, no sense in making matters worse.  If an electric fan is available, place your wet canine in front of the fan.  Wiping the paws with cool water and applying cool packs to the groin area can be helpful.  Continue the cooling process and monitoring the rectal temperature until it falls below 103°F.  Then stop the cooling process and dry your canine.  Be cautious though, if you continue the cooling process after the temperature has fallen below 103°F, it may cause hypothermia and shock.

Another option is calling for an ambulance.  Yes an ambulance.  I know, an ambulance is for people, but think about it.  An ambulance is equipped with lifesaving equipment and supplies, such as water, towels, cool packs, and probably even a rectal thermometer.  Sometimes you just got to think outside the box.  That ambulance is a huge first aid kit on wheels, call them and get your canine on the road to recovery, then take him to the veterinarian as soon as possible afterward.  Heat stroke can cause other issues, so you will want to have the canine thoroughly checked over.

Now when it comes to dehydration, it is preventable.  Make sure that your canine has a supply of fresh water.  If your canine has heat stroke and has been vomiting and/or diarrhea, then dehydration can set in as a result of the loss of fluids. 

There are several signs of dehydration to watch for.  When dehydration sets in, the skin loses its elasticity.  If you were to pull up on the skin along the back, the skin would stay up like a ridge instead of falling back as it normally would.  Dry mouth is another sign.  It should be that wet slobbery mouth that we are used to, not dry and tacky.  In more advanced cases, the eyes can be sunken, show signs of shock up to and including collapse.

Prevention is the best solution, but dehydration can happen.  If it does, try and get the canine to drink some water, but you should get him or her to the veterinarian as soon as possible. The veterinarian can provide fluids intravenously, which will replace the loss of fluid but prevent further loss.

I have worked with canines in the hot dry heat of the southwest and the hot humid heat of the northeast.  Heat is heat, they are a different kind of heat, but they both suck the fluids and energy out of you.  It does the same to your canine.  So remember when you’re sucking down that bottle of water to check on the condition of your canine.

I have acquired the above knowledge from reading on the internet, books, and magazines and from personal experience and training.  I am not a veterinarian; therefore the above information should not be considered professional medical advice.  For further information, you should consult with your veterinarian.

Stay safe.


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About the author:

Steve Forgues started his career over 18 years ago in Arizona. Over the years, Forgues has worked contract security, police, corrections and tactical operations. Forgues has been an instructor in various disciplines since 1998, and has been working and training with canines since 2000. Forgues has also been writing for law enforcement since 2005. He is currently working as a police officer and firefighter in Pennsylvania.