Charlottesville has no shortage of things to do outdoors in the summer, and we’re lucky to live somewhere that pets are often just as welcome as people. From dog-friendly parks and hiking trails to Downtown restaurants that happily serve bowls of water to their canine dinner guests, there are worse places to have four legs. But all that sunshine comes with some risk, making this a good time to remember the simple causes and catastrophic effects of heatstroke.
Heatstroke isn’t a simple matter of overdoing it and then needing some Gatorade and a nap. It is a widespread system failure, and once the process starts, it can be very difficult to reverse. Animal bodies are meant to run within a narrow range of temperatures. Pushed beyond those limits, even by just a few degrees, things unravel fast. Proteins change shape and stop functioning. Cell membranes break down and spill their contents. Blood leaks out of vessels, and clots form within others. The kidneys and liver stop functioning normally, and the brain can be permanently damaged. There’s no pleasant way to describe this. It’s an emergency, and while some animals can be rescued, this is one situation that’s easier to avoid than it is to correct.
A terrible number of heatstroke cases begin in cars. I can’t stress this enough: Don’t leave your pet alone in a car, even for short periods of time. Cars are like little greenhouses on wheels, and cracking the windows does absolutely nothing to change that. It only takes minutes for a sun-baked car to reach dangerous temperatures, and it’s not worth risking tragedy for a few moments of convenience. Even if you think you’re just running into the store for a few minutes, the person ahead of you in line with 19 coupons and a checkbook doesn’t know or care. Although this advice goes double in the hotter months, it holds throughout the entire year. My last car-related heatstroke patient was in January. January! I know you think it won’t happen to you. That’s what everybody thinks until it does.
But animals can—and do—overheat in other circumstances. While people can dissipate heat by sweating, dogs can’t do much but pant, and that’s a terribly inefficient way of cooling off. If you’re going for a long hike, bring lots of water, take plenty of breaks, and try to stick to the shade (this will also help prevent scorched paws from hot pavement). Try to plan your activity in the morning or evening when the sun is lower in the sky. Swimming can help keep cool if your dog likes the water. Be particularly careful if your dog is overweight or brachycephalic (read: smushy-faced, like pugs and bulldogs), because they are at an even higher risk. And if you’re thinking of shaving your pet for the summer months, don’t go too wild. Trimming away the heavier fur can be useful, but that coat protects animals from the sun’s rays, and shaving down to the skin can actually make things worse.
Watch your dog carefully for signs of heatstroke. Heavy panting and thickened saliva may be early evidence that something is wrong. As the problem gets worse, you might see dark gums, stumbling, confusion, or complete collapse. Dogs and cats that spend a lot of time outdoors should have ready access to water and shade. If there is any question, get your pet soaked down in cool water, offer water to drink, and get to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Treatment is far more effective if started early in the process, and waiting to see what happens next can be fatal.
Summer is a great opportunity to spend time outside with our pets, but it only takes a few minutes for a happy day to become a tragic one. I see it far too often. Keep things safe, and enjoy tomorrow, too.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.