I’m sure everyone has seen those “Dogs die in hot cars adverts” by now – but still, every year, we sadly see too many dogs who have essentially been cooked alive.In this blog, we’re going to look at some of the major (and often overlooked) risks for overheating, and what you can do to prevent a tragedy!
Why is overheating so dangerous for dogs?
Well, strictly, it’s not just dogs. Any animal that gets too hot will overheat and suffer from hyperthermia (excessively high body temperature – not to be confused with hypothermia which is excessively low temperature). Most domestic animals (and humans) have an optimal body temperature between 36 and 40 degrees Centigrade. Once body temperatures go above 40C, however, it becomes increasingly dangerous to the body. The enzymes (protein machines in the cells that keep us all alive) start to shut down above 43-45C, and eventually, the animal will suffer brain, liver and kidney damage (these organs are most susceptible to heat damage). If they continue to overheat, they will literally cook and die.
However, dogs are especially sensitive to high temperatures. Dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and as such are best adapted to life in a very cold climate. Yes, there are some breeds (such as Pharaoh Hounds) that are better able to cope with heat, but overall, dogs are really badly designed for hot weather! They have a coat of insulating fur; they cannot sweat (except through their pads), and so to lose heat, they must pant. But panting requires a lot of energy, so in the long term it heats them up even more; and also leads to rapid dehydration. Humans and cats (both of us descended from African lineages) cope much better with the heat than most dogs do.
So, what situations are most dangerous?
Well, obviously, the dog in the hot car. Remember, a car acts as a tiny greenhouse – it gets progressively hotter inside and there isn’t enough volume for cooling air currents to form.
However, actual greenhouses, sheds and outdoor kennels are also potential death traps, for the same reason – the air temperature gets higher and higher inside, even on a relatively mild day.
Lack of shade can also be fatal for dogs chained or tied outside and unable to get out of the heat – temperatures in the shade may be as much as 10 or 15C lower.
The breed and health of the dog are also important factors. Dogs with longer noses generally cope with heat a little bit better than average, but brachycephalic dogs (those with very short noses, like Pugs or Bulldogs) really struggle with hot weather. This is because, as a result of their short muzzles, their breathing is impaired, so they cannot pant as efficiently. As a result, they are much more susceptible to hyperthermia.
Likewise, any dog with lung or heart disease will struggle more in the hot weather because they cannot regulate their body temperature as well.
Dogs with reduced mobility and senile dementia are also at higher risk – because they can’t (or won’t) move out of the heat when they start to get too hot!
Are there any medical diseases that can cause hyperthermia?
Yes – the most important is epilepsy (or indeed any cause of seizures). When a dog is having a fit, their muscles contract very fast, causing a buildup of heat. If untreated, dogs can become hyperthermic very, very fast! Remember, any seizure lasting over 5 minutes is an emergency and needs to be seen by one of our vets ASAP.
So, how can I help prevent it?
There are a couple of easy steps you can do to help minimise the risk:
- Don’t ever shut a dog alone in a car, shed, greenhouse or small kennel
- Make sure they always have ad-lib fresh water
- Make sure they can get into the shade if needed
- If they’re a high-risk breed, or have one of the health conditions mentioned, make sure that you monitor them for signs of overheating or discomfort.
- If your dog is struggling, actively cool them with cold water, fans, or (ideally) a pool or pond to cool off in!