How to recognise the symptoms of a heatstroke in dogs

17 June 2022 - 3 min read
dog drinking
dog drinking

As temperatures rise it's really important that you as a dog owner recognise the signs of heatstroke and feel confident you can cool down your pet safely if needed.

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What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is a serious condition where your dog's body is unable to cool itself after exposure to hot temperatures.

When dogs are too hot they pant and sweat through their paws to bring their body temperature back to normal levels. But when they’re having a heatstroke they are unable to cool down on their own.

Untreated heatstroke can be fatal.

Understanding what causes heatstroke can help you prevent it.

Signs your dog might be suffering from heatstroke

Early warning signs that your pet is struggling in the heat include:

  • Panting heavily (dogs pant as a means to cool themselves down so some panting can be normal and not a major source of concern)

  • Appearing to be upset or distressed

  • Weakness

  • Dribbling more than usual

  • Foaming at the mouth

  • Increased heart rate

  • Vomiting

If your pet is panting on a warm day, and is drooling a lot or foaming at the mouth, or generally, looking 'hot and bothered' it would be best to take action to avoid heatstroke.

It's important to also keep in mind what's normal for your dog. For example, flat-faced dogs already have to breathe a bit more heavily and so are at a higher risk of getting overheated.

If no measures are taken to cool your dog down these will progress to severe symptoms, which might include:

  • Bright red gums

  • Loss of coordination

  • Collapse

  • Bleeding from their nose or mouth

  • Tremors or seizures

These can be fatal, which is why spotting the early signs and being able to respond quickly is so important.

How to treat a dog for heatstroke at home and first aid tips

If you are concerned your pet is suffering from heatstroke phone your vet straight away, even if it seems to be getting better. The heatstroke may have damaged your pet’s organs so they might still need veterinary treatment.

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There are also some things you can and might need to do at home before being able to safely transport your pet to the vet.

Some studies have shown that starting gentle cooling at home can increase survival rates. Your vet may ask you to begin cooling treatment before you make your way to the practice.

Tips to cool your dog down safely

  • Move your pet into the shade.

  • Dampen their body with cool, room temperature water using wet towels and sponges. Do not cover your pet with the towels as this can increase their body temperature – just use the towels to deposit water on your dog's fur.

  • If possible, put your dog in front of a fan once their fur's damp.

  • Place something cool, like an ice pack wrapped in a towel, on their groin, armpits, belly and spine.  This is where major blood vessels run so it'll cool the blood effectively.

  • Offer small amounts of cool water to drink – a couple of mouthfuls at a time.

  • Apply tepid water to the paw pads at regular intervals.

  • Try to count your pet’s breathing rate and make a note of it every five minutes until you reach your vet.

Avoid hosing your pet down and don't submerge them in water.

As soon as they seem more settled, make your way to your vet practice as quickly as possible.

If you can, transport them in an air-conditioned car (set to cool, not ice cold). If your car doesn’t have air-conditioning, leave the windows slightly open to create a breeze.

What increases a dog's risk or heatstroke?

There are a few health conditions that put your dog at greater risk of heatstroke:

Regardless of your dog’s age, weight or breed, there are also a few situations that can cause heatstroke in even the healthiest of dogs:

  • Lack of water

  • Being in the sun too long

  • Enclosed hot space

  • Lack of shade

  • Excessive humidity

  • Intense physical exertion/exercise

When the weather gets hot, make sure your dog has plenty of access to shade and cool spots.

Check out our tips for helping your dog on hot days and a step by step guide to creating shade and water spots round your garden.

Preventing heatstroke in pets

  • Provide fresh, clean, cool drinking water inside and outside.

  • Put ice in their water or make frozen treats for them to lick.

  • Give your pet access to plenty of shaded areas throughout the day.

  • Keep them out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day.

  • Never leave pets alone in closed vehicles – on any day, for any length of time – not even if the windows are down.

  • Exercise dogs in the coolest parts of the day, before dawn or after dusk. If you cannot hold your hand or foot on the ground for more than a couple of seconds because it feels too hot then do not walk your dog.

  • Place cooling mats around the house for your dog to lie on – read our cooling mat review if you're not sure what to buy.

  • Provide a paddling pool for them to stand in. Note that dogs should be supervised when around water/paddling pools at all times.

  • Keep your pet’s weight in a healthy range.

How vets treat heatstroke

If your pet needs to go to a vet, they'll receive a physical exam and their heart rate and core body temperature will be checked. If their condition is severe, they will be admitted for urgent care.

Treatments such as intravenous fluids and oxygen may be given to stabilise their condition. Regular blood tests will be done to determine the level of internal damage the body has suffered and whether any organs have been affected.

Monitoring and treating a pet with heatstroke quickly is critical. Even pets that appear to improve can deteriorate rapidly 24 to 48 hours after the event.

How to help a pet trapped in a hot car

Dog in hot car

Dogs die in hot cars, so if you see a dog locked in a hot car it might be best to dial 999 if it looks in distress. Ask how long it will take them to attend. They may suggest you also call the RSPCA.