How to Treat Heat Stroke (Hyperthermia) In Dogs

Photo by Jan-Erik Finnberg, via CCBY2.0

Heat Stroke is a medical emergency for dogs, requiring immediate interventions to lower an affected dog’s body temperature, including moving him to the shade, offering fresh water to drink, and sprinkling him with cool (never cold!) water.

While helping your dog cool down, the next essential step is a trip to the veterinarian’s office or the nearest animal hospital in an air-conditioned vehicle.

Knowing the early signs of heat stroke in dogs, along with essential first aid, can improve your dog’s chance of survival. Here’s what to look for, and the most crucial steps to take:

Recognizing Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion in Dogs

This is the first step in treatment—you can’t intervene if you don’t know something is dangerously amiss.

Symptoms of heat stroke in dogs:

  • Excessive panting
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weakness
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Collapse
  • High temperature (measured with a rectal thermometer)
  • Extreme thirst
  • A bright red tongue and pale gums
  • Skin around muzzle or neck doesn’t snap back when pinched (a sign of dehydration)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse or coma
  • Thick saliva
  • Increased heart rate

What Causes Heat Stroke?

Dogs cool down primarily through panting. When your dog pants, his breath travels rapidly across the wet interior surfaces of his mouth (his tongue, soft palate, and cheeks), and evaporation results. The evaporation process is cooling—first, dropping the temperature of your dog’s mucous membranes and then his entire body as the cooler blood circulates. This is the reason your dog pants during and after runs and play sessions, and on hot days—he’s bringing down his core body temperature the way nature designed.

Fast fact: Dogs have sweat glands in the paws of their feet and in their ear canals that offer minor temperature regulation, but sweating doesn’t cool dogs as effectively as it cools their human counterparts.

Normal canine body temperature is 101.5° F. Any temperature above normal is considered hyperthermia, but a temperature of 103° F or higher indicates possible heat exhaustion, and a temperature of 105° F or higher indicates heat stroke.

It’s helpful to think of heat exhaustion as the precursor to heat stroke. Most of the symptoms overlap, except for the most critical ones, including coma and difficulty breathing, which means overheating has become heat stroke. Ideally, you will recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion so you can bring your dog’s temperature down before it evolves into heat stroke.

Steps to Treat Heat Stroke (or Heat Exhaustion) in Dogs

When you notice symptoms of heat-related illness in your dog, take these steps:

1. Get him out of the heat – Carry or slowly walk your dog to a cool location. Get him out of an overheated car and out of direct sunlight. Take him to the shade, or into an air-conditioned room if you are near one.

2. Restrict his activity – Even if he’s showing symptoms of heat exhaustion, your dog may continue running around—particularly if he’s an energetic dog breed. It’s hard to resist playing, after all. As best you can, settle your dog down so that he’s sitting still or lying down.

3. Give him water – Offer your dog small amounts of cool or room temperature water frequently to help with cooling and hydrating. Don’t give him cold water or force water down his throat. If he is unable to drink, squeeze cool water into his mouth and along his gums using a wet towel as best you’re able.

4. Check his temperature – This is best checked using a dog-safe rectal thermometer. If his temperature is at or above 104° F continue with the next steps. If his temperature is below this, keep him cool and calm, and get him to the veterinarian.

Avoid bringing your dog’s temperature down too fast or too low, which can impede the cooling process by constricting blood vessels, and can cause serious complications. If his temperature is below 104° F, you might inadvertently lower it too quickly.

Check his temperature every minute or so throughout this process to guard against excessive cooling.

5. Wet him down – Use a wet cloth or hose turned to a thin stream to wet your dog with cool water. Focus on his paws, head, armpits, tail, and between his back legs. If you have access to a fan, direct it towards him to facilitate evaporation and cooling.

  • DON’T submerge your dog in cold water or blast him with a forceful spray of water from the hose. As mentioned above, cooling him too fast or bringing his temperature too low is dangerous.
  • DON’T cover him in a cool, wet towel—this actually traps heat.

6. Dab his paws with rubbing alcohol – If you have rubbing alcohol in the medicine cabinet, put some on a cotton ball and then dab the cotton ball on his paws. This cools his paws as it evaporates. (Warning: Discard the cotton ball so he doesn’t eat it when he is more alert.) If you don’t have rubbing alcohol, focus on the other tactics.

7. Bring him to see a veterinarian – Even if your dog cools down and perks up, he needs a checkup at the veterinarian’s office or animal hospital. Share your dog’s symptoms and how high his temperature reached. The vet can ensure your dog is fully recovered and didn’t experience complications from the heat-related illness.

Important note: In certain circumstances, getting your dog to the veterinarian without a second’s delay is the best course of action. If he is unconscious, vomiting, or he’s having seizures, here’s what you need to do:

  • Turn on the car and get the air conditioning going.
  • If someone is with you, enlist their help to grab water bottles and/or soak a towel with water.

Carry your dog to the car.

En route to the veterinarian, have your helper squeeze or pour water over your dog, especially along his underside.

Have your helper squeeze small amounts of water along your dog’s mouth. Never force a dog to drink water.

Preventing Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion in Dogs

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure, so keeping your dog cool in extreme heat and preventing the onset of heat exhaustion or heat stroke is ideal.

The top trouble spots and risk factors for heat exhaustion and heat stroke to watch for include:

Spikes in outdoor or indoor temperatures. High heat poses challenges for dogs (and humans!). When sweltering conditions persist, panting fails to bring down your dog’s temperature enough. Parked cars are well-known danger zones for dogs because the interior temperature becomes scorching hot quickly.

Physical characteristics that make panting less efficient. Dogs with brachycephalic (short) snouts, such as Pugs, Bulldogs, and English Toy Spaniels, pant less efficiently than long-snouted dogs. It’s a combination of less surface area for evaporation to do its job, and the breathing difficulties that often coincide with short muzzles.

Tip: Keep your brachycephalic dog in air-conditioned or cool rooms when temperatures rise, and keep exercise and walks to the bare minimum through the hottest hours of the day.

Physical illnesses and obesity. Canine obesity and certain common ailments and medications can impede body temperature regulation in dogs.

Tip: Keep your dog’s weight under control, and talk to your veterinarian about overheating risks related to illness and prescription medication.

Lack of escape from the heat. In extreme heat, panting isn’t enough. Dogs need shade, cool water (which prevents dehydration in dogs), or a room with air conditioning to help them cool down.

Tip: In hot weather, make sure your dog has a designated cool-down zone. If he is a ‘non-stop’ breed, enforce breaks in cool rooms. Finally, NEVER leave your dog in a car alone for even a minute.

Exercise without a break. Similar to people, when temperatures run high, dogs need to slow down, let their panting work its cooling magic, and drink water.

Tip: Stay attentive to when you exercise your dog. Keep walks and exercise in hot weather to a minimum and schedule activity in early morning and evening when it’s cooler.

Lack of water. Dogs lose a lot of water through panting, and they need moisture so that this essential cooling mechanism works effectively.

Tip: Make sure your dog has access to clean, cool water at all times when it is hot and humid.

Heat combined with high humidity. Evaporation is less efficient when there is a lot of moisture in the air.

Tip: Give your dog access to air-conditioned rooms when it’s very humid. AC removes humidity from the air.

It’s a lot to remember, to be sure. But knowing the risk factors, preventative measures, and first-aid for heat stroke can save your dog’s life, or the life of a friend or neighbor’s dog. And, when temperatures rise and you enjoy outdoor adventures with your dog, a bit of knowledge offers boundless peace of mind.

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