Summer doesn’t officially start until Friday, but Washington is already getting plenty of humid, swampy weather. Though many pet owners understandably want to play outside with their pups as temperatures warm, the summer heat can be extremely dangerous—even lethal—for dogs. We spoke with Dr. Jennifer Stafford, a veterinarian at VCA Veterinary Referral Associates in Gaithersburg, about signs of heat stroke in dogs and precautions owners should take this summer.
Are you already seeing patients with heat stroke?
Yes. We actually had a dog that died [last] week. The most common time we see it is early in the summer when dogs haven’t had time to adjust to the extreme heat.
What are the symptoms owners should watch for?
Look for dogs that are excessively panting. Dogs can’t sweat like people. The way they get rid of heat is by panting. On days that are very hot and humid, the panting has no effect because they’re exhaling warm, humid air into warm, humid air. They can’t cool down on those days. Dogs that are acting lethargic is another early sign. Late signs are dogs that are vomiting, that have a very weak gait, that are kind of stumbling. These are signs you don’t want to see. They’re very affected at that point.
What precautions should owners take on hot days?
For dogs that have long hair coats, shaving them during the summer can help with the heat. If you want to walk your dog, do it early in the morning or late in the evening after the sun is down. For owners with pugs, Boston terriers, bulldogs, the kinds of dogs with smushed faces—those dogs’ ability to get rid of heat is even worse. I don’t recommend too much exercise at all for them in the summer. Even in cooler environments, those dogs are more susceptible. Overweight dogs are also more susceptible to heat stroke.
I would not take any dog out on a hike in the middle of the summer—any dog. Some of the cases that we’ve had in the past involved dogs who went hiking with their owners, and they were doing great, having a blast, then all of a sudden they were weak and wanting to stop. With heat stroke, the cells in the body get overheated and stop functioning. Everything, including the ability to clot blood, goes to the wayside.
Is there a rule of thumb for the right amount of outdoor activity on a typical summer day in Washington?
It’s not necessarily how long the dog’s exercising, it’s the degree of humidity. If they spend 15 minutes running around in really humid, 90-degree weather, that’s worse than 30 minutes in 80 degrees.
How fast does heat stroke kick in?
We had a dog last summer where the owners thought the dog was outside, but he had jumped inside their car after they returned from grocery shopping. He’d been in the car 15 minutes by the time they found him. By the time they got him here, it was too late.
It breaks my heart when I see someone running down the road with a dog on a hot day. I never hesitate to tell them the risks. As much as people love to get their dogs out in the summer, sometimes it’s just more of a risk than is really worth it.