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How to Keep Your Dog Cool and Prevent Heatstroke

A woman smiling with her pet dog – Courtesy of Amy Koepke

This summer, 7-year-old Teddy is sporting a crew cut to keep him cool.

Amy Koepke, 56, of Osceola, Wisconsin, also puts ice in his water and walks with him for about 30 minutes less than usual. Teddy is her golden retriever.

“When it gets hot and humid, it definitely makes a difference,” Koepke, 56, says. “It really comes down to treating a dog how you want to be treated.”

These days, dogs are getting a lot more walks, ball tosses and fetching sessions, as people spend extended time at home with their pets during the coronavirus quarantine. Some owners may be new to caring for animals, since pet adoption has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But small measures can help keep dogs cool and avoid overheating, which is a risk as the summer heat intensifies and more people venture outside under relaxed coronavirus-related restrictions in many places.

Dogs cool themselves by panting. But panting becomes inefficient in extreme heat, during physical exertion, when the dog is dehydrated or when there’s insufficient ventilation, or a combination of those factors.

Within minutes, a dog can become overheated, which can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, kidney failure, brain damage and even death.

Factors Beyond Temperature

Overheating is “producing body heat faster than the dog can dissipate the heat into the environment,” says Michael Davis, who specializes in veterinary sports medicine at Oklahoma State University. There is no maximum temperature that should be avoided, he says.

Humidity can be more important than temperature, Davis says. Seventy degrees with high humidity can be just as dangerous for your dog as 90 degrees and low humidity, based on a heat index he helped create for military dog training.

A good rule of thumb: If it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for your canine companion, says Katie True, a veterinarian and medical director of Midtown Animal Hospital in Sacramento, California. However, it depends on the dog’s health, activity and acclimation to the climate, she adds.

Heatstroke may occur when a dog’s body temperature (normally around 101.5 degrees) rises to 106 degrees or higher. One of the most common causes of heatstroke is leaving a dog in a hot vehicle without sufficient air flow. Never leave a dog alone in a car, especially in the summer, even with the windows partially open.

As you walk your dog, remember that ground surfaces like asphalt, sand and metal absorb heat from the sun and can become so hot they can burn the sensitive pads of paws. If you think these surfaces might be too hot, guide your dog to the grass or avoid these areas until they cool down.

Spotting a need for cooling

Signs your dog is on the verge of overheating include excessive panting, disorientation, a large tongue and a mouth open so wide you can see all of the teeth.

If you see any of those signs, immediately stop your dog’s activity and move it to a shady or cool area, True says. Give your dog water and, if possible, direct a fan on it or hose it down with cool water, she adds.

One of the most effective ways to cool a dog is to let the pup jump in a lake, river or pool, Davis says. But don’t let the dog’s temperature fall too rapidly to normal, to avoid hypothermia.

In June, Lisa Taylor of Dallas was concerned when Blue, a Brittany spaniel, couldn’t catch his breath on a walk with her, her husband and their mutt Lucky on a 95-degree day. They stopped in the shade for about 30 minutes and gave the dog water in a flexible bowl they carry until he recovered.

“In Texas, three months of the year, we can walk whenever we want, and nine months we cater to the weather,” says Taylor, 59. “We don’t go out in the high hours — after 11 a.m. or before 8 p.m. — in the summer.”

Certain breeds are higher risk

If your dog gets to the point of overheating, take it to a veterinarian immediately. Warning signs may include unresponsiveness, wheezing, disorientation, wobbliness, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures or collapse. A rectal temperature above 104.5 degrees may signify overheating.

Heatstroke can occur in all breeds and ages, but veterinarians say the risk is higher for dogs that are overweight or not physically fit, as well as flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs, such as boxers, bulldogs and pugs. Large dogs and those with thick fur, including golden retrievers, also are at high risk.

Most fit, healthy dogs will recover quickly if treated immediately and if their body temperature doesn’t stay too high too long.

The bottom line is “pay attention to your dog,” Davis says. “Does he look like he’s doing everything he possibly can to get rid of heat? If yes, then you need to slow down.”

7 tips to keep your dog from overheating

1. Keep your dog hydrated with fresh, cool water. Carry a water bottle or portable water bowl.

2. Ask your vet if you should trim your dog’s hair shorter than usual for the summer.

3. Provide shade.

4. Take frequent breaks and don’t play too hard.

5. Provide good air flow with a fan or air conditioning.

6. Decrease your dog’s activity and avoid the hottest parts of the day. On really hot days, keep your dog inside.

7. Never leave your dog in the car on hot days.

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