Skip to main content

How to Protect Your Dog From Heatstroke This Summer

Ron is a now former dog owner who is still fascinated by everything dog.

Heat Can Kill!

A football player practicing in the heat and humidity of an August afternoon collapses and almost dies. A toddler is left alone in a car for just a few minutes while her parent runs into a convenience store. By the time the parent returns, the child is comatose and unresponsive due to soaring temperatures inside the vehicle.

Stories such as these seem to make the news multiple times every summer. Although they can be extremely harrowing experiences for the individuals and families involved, the good thing is that the wide reporting of such events alerts people to the danger that excessive heat poses to children and adults alike.

Although most people are becoming more attentive to protecting themselves and their children from the dangers of overheating in warm weather, they often don't think about the fact that their pets can also be overwhelmed by too much heat. Dogs, in particular, are prone to overheating because their furry bodies are designed to be more efficient at retaining heat as opposed to getting rid of it.

Why Overheating Is a Greater Danger for Dogs Than Humans

Dogs can handle higher internal temperatures than people can. While humans start to feel the effects of overheating when their body temperature reaches around 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 to 38.9 degrees Celsius), that’s just right for a dog. Body temperatures of between 100.5°F and 102.5°F (38°C to 39.2°C) are normal for canines.

The problem for dogs is that they have greater difficulty in avoiding becoming overheated. Their bodies are designed more for keeping them warm in cold conditions than for helping them cool off when it’s hot.

We humans have sweat glands all over our bodies to help cool us down when temperatures get high. Dogs, on the other hand, only have sweat glands on their noses and on the pads of their feet. So, for them sweating is not the major avenue of temperature control. Instead, dogs cool down by panting. But when the air a dog breathes is warm and humid, panting is often insufficient to keep their internal temperature from reaching dangerous levels.

Here, a dog is panting to cool down.

Here, a dog is panting to cool down.

The Heat Danger Zone

The heat danger zone for dogs starts when their bodies reach temperatures greater than about 103°F (39.4°C). A body temperature of 104° to 106°F (40° to 41°C) is a compelling reason for concern because it indicates that a dog is suffering moderate heatstroke. However, if prompt action is taken to bring down the animal’s temperature, it normally can recover quickly, often within about an hour.

A body temperature of 106°F or more signals that a dog is suffering severe heatstroke. At that point, immediate emergency action is required or the dog will almost certainly die.

What Extreme Overheating Does to Your Dog

When a dog’s internal temperature reaches the severe heatstroke range (106°F and above), its condition begins to deteriorate very rapidly. In just a few minutes, body cells begin to die, leading to multiple organ breakdowns, including the heart and liver. Dehydration can cause severe kidney damage, and swelling of the brain can lead to seizures. Unless quick and effective action is taken to bring the dog’s temperature down, it will almost certainly die.

Although a person’s normal body temperature of 98.6°F is lower than a dog’s, both enter the heat danger zone at similar temperature levels. When internal temperatures reach 103°F or more, both humans and dogs are in danger of hyperthermia (becoming severely overheated). So, if you are feeling the heat, your dog probably is too.

Signs That Your Dog May Be Overheating

Here are some signs you should look for that indicate your dog may have entered the heat danger zone:

  • Bright or dark red tongue and gums
  • Dizziness
  • Elevated body temperature (104ºF or greater)
  • Excessive drooling
  • Excessive thirst
  • Glazed eyes
  • Heavy panting
  • Muscular weakness, staggering, or collapse
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness
  • Vomiting or bloody diarrhea

When you see any of these symptoms on a hot day, don’t ignore them. It’s time to take action, fast!

What to Do If Your Dog Overheats

If you see indications that your dog may be suffering from heatstroke, your first and most important priority is to help it cool down.

  • First of all, get the dog out of direct heat and into the shade. If possible, move it into an area that’s air-conditioned.
  • Apply cool (not cold) water to bring down its body temperature. This may include spraying it with a garden hose, putting a wet towel on its body, or placing it in a pool or bathtub. Focus first on cooling the head and neck areas, as well as underneath all four legs.
  • Allow the dog to drink water (again, cool but not cold), but never force it to drink more than it wants to take in on its own.
  • Massaging the legs can increase circulation and reduce the risk of shock.
  • Continue cooling the dog until its temperature drops below 103°F. If possible, check its body temperature every five minutes. The most accurate method of measuring an animal’s internal temperature is by use of a rectal thermometer. Experts recommend keeping such an instrument on hand (make sure it's clearly marked as for use only with animals). Note that estimating temperature by touch, or even by using an oral thermometer, is unlikely to provide accurate results.

Once you’ve taken these emergency steps to begin the cooling-down process, your next priority is to get the dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Heatstroke can cause internal issues, such as swelling of the brain or kidney failure, that might not be immediately apparent on the outside.

How to Keep Your Dog From Overheating

Of course, the best way to protect your dog from the dangerous effects of hyperthermia is to prevent it from getting overheated in the first place. Here are some specific suggestions for how you can keep your dog safe in hot weather.

  • On warm days dogs, like people, can quickly become overheated if they are too active and overexert themselves. Pay careful attention to the amount of physical activity your pet engages in when temperatures are elevated. You might consider making it a practice to walk or exercise your dog only during the cooler portions of the day, such as the early morning or after sunset.
  • Be particularly watchful about allowing your dog to run on hot pavement or even on sand at the beach. Not only can the hot surface burn its paws, but the heat reflected from underneath can accelerate the overheating process.
  • Dogs can quickly dehydrate if there’s no water for them to drink. Make sure that your dog always has access to plenty of cool and clean water, especially if it’s outside on a hot day.
Here, a dog is cooling down in the kiddie pool to avoid potential heatstroke.

Here, a dog is cooling down in the kiddie pool to avoid potential heatstroke.

  • Be careful about exposing your pet to hot and humid conditions. Remember that a dog is likely to overheat if it can’t get out of the sun and into the shade. If possible, keep your dog inside when the temperature gets up into the 90-degree range. If it must be outside on such days, you might let the dog play in the sprinkler, hose it down periodically, or provide a wading pool it can jump into when it starts to feel too warm.
  • Be especially careful with dogs that have thick fur, and those with flat faces and short noses, such as Pugs, Bulldogs, Shi Tzus, Boston Terriers, Pekinese, and Boxers. These breeds have more trouble cooling down than others because their panting isn’t as efficient as that of the more long-nosed types.
  • Consider having your dog’s fur cut shorter during the hot weather months. But be careful not to trim it down to the skin. If its fur is too short (less than about an inch), a dog can get sunburned.
  • Don’t muzzle your dog on hot days as that will interfere with its ability to cool down by panting.
  • Be aware that if your dog is older, or has health issues such as obesity, breathing problems, or heart disease, it may start to suffer from the heat much sooner than a healthier dog would.

These are all best practices that, if you conscientiously follow them, will go a long way toward protecting your dog from being damaged by excessive heat.

But there’s an additional principle that is supremely important for dog owners to follow. The fact that it continues to be frequently violated is the cause of a multitude of totally unnecessary dog fatalities every year. Here’s an example.

A Veterinarian Is Jailed for Allowing His Dog to Die of Heatstroke

Dr. Douglas James Huber was a well-regarded and professionally conscientious veterinary surgeon in Palm Desert, California. One evening in August of 2012, he was called to his clinic to handle an emergency. Expecting to be gone only a short time, Dr. Huber left his eight-year-old German shepherd locked in his car. But the emergency procedure took much longer than Dr. Huber expected. In fact, he was detained until mid-morning the next day.

By then his dog had been locked in the car for more than 10 hours without food or water. When police officers finally broke open the car and freed the dog at about 9:05 a.m, the outside temperature was 95ºF. Although the officers did all they could to cool the animal down, by 9:30 a.m. it was dead.

Less than a half-hour later, Dr. Huber was arrested under a provision of the California penal code that states, "No person shall leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal." Dr. Huber was booked into the county jail and released on $2,500 bail.

Dr. Huber’s problem was not that he didn’t care about his dog. The police officers who arrested him noted that he “was very distraught and visibly upset over the loss of his dog.” But this experienced veterinarian lost his pet, and his reputation, because he made the same mistake that thousands of other dog owners continue to make year after year—the mistake of believing that it’s OK to leave a dog locked in a car “for just a few minutes.”

Dogs locked in cars on a hot day are at increased risk of overheating or heatstroke.

Dogs locked in cars on a hot day are at increased risk of overheating or heatstroke.

Never, Ever Leave a Dog in a Closed Vehicle!

Never, absolutely never, leave a dog in a car with the windows up, even if the day doesn’t seem that hot, and even if you think you'll only be gone for a short time. Temperatures inside an enclosed space like a car can elevate into the danger zone within minutes.

When the outside temperature is 85°F, the interior of a closed vehicle can reach 102°F in just 10 minutes, and 120°F within a half hour. According to one study, on a day when the temperature reaches about 84°F and the humidity is at 90%, a dog locked in a car could die within as little as 48 minutes. Another study found that 80% of the temperature rise inside an enclosed vehicle occurs within the first 30 minutes.

And it doesn’t help to leave the windows cracked open. The temperature in a car with windows cracked may be only about 2°F cooler after 90 minutes than if the windows were fully closed.

The fact is, leaving your dog inside a closed vehicle while you run to do a quick errand can easily become a death sentence for a beloved pet.

A dog and his loving human can have a long relationship provided certain commonsense precautions are taken to prevent canine heatstroke.

A dog and his loving human can have a long relationship provided certain commonsense precautions are taken to prevent canine heatstroke.

Commit to Keeping Your Dog Safe in the Heat

If you are like most dog owners, you are committed to doing everything you can to keep your canine companion safe and healthy. The good news is that protecting your dog from the dangers of heatstroke isn't rocket science. By conscientiously applying the information shared in this article, a little common sense, and a lot of love, you can lay a great foundation for your BFFF (Best Furry Friend Forever) and you to have a long, healthy, and cool life together.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 22, 2018:

Thanks, Dora. I'm glad you found this interesting even though you don't have a dog. Now that you've started CaribTales, I hope you have some good dog memories you can write about.

CaribTales on February 22, 2018:

Learned much about dogs from this article, and if I had one, I'd follow your suggestions. It's all about sensitive to their need for good care especially in high temperatures. Sorry Dr. Huber had to pay so dearly for his mistake.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 21, 2018:

Great, Kari. I'm glad this info helps. As with Dr. Huber, it's so easy to get delayed or distracted and leave the dog in the car longer than intended.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on February 21, 2018:

Thanks for all the good information! I have left my dog in a vehicle, in the shade, with the windows cracked for up to 15 minutes. I now realize the danger of this!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 20, 2018:

Thanks, Heidi. You're right that it's not just dog owners who need to be aware of what extreme heat can do to their pets. I hadn't thought about cold, but I can see how that might be an issue not just in cold climates, but even in areas that aren't normally cold, but have occasional cold snaps.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 20, 2018:

Great reminders for ALL pet owners! It is just tragic. And, on the opposite side of the temperature spectrum, don't leave your furry (or other) animal friend in cold car either. With some of the subzero temps we get around here, that's not a good thing.