Dogs and heat stroke

Dogs and heat stroke

Dogs left in parked cars during the summer are susceptible to heat stroke. Know the risks of leaving your furry friend unattended in a hot car.

July 4, 2019

It's a steamy summer day, and the temperature in my city hits 30°C. I walk—under the blazing sun—by a car in the parking lot of a big grocery store and what do I see? The snout of a dog (perhaps a Labrador) poking through the tiny open space of the rear window. I think to myself: not another one!

After saying hello to the friendly dog, I take a few minutes to make sure he's okay. I know all too well the symptoms of heat stroke: excessive panting and pronounced difficulty breathing followed by lethargy, vomiting and red gums. These are the symptoms triggered when a dog's body temperature rises well above normal, between 38.5°C and 39.5°C. Fortunately, there's nothing to report: this dog is alert and happy to see me!

However, I'm still prepared to intervene, knowing full well that the body temperature of this dog can rise to 41°C and that within the next 60 minutes this family pet could experience severe dehydration, a decrease in blood supply to the cells, cerebral edema (a swelling of the brain), heart shock, coma and, ultimately, death.

I consult my watch. I'm mindful of the strict regulation in my city that forbids owners to leave an animal unattended in a road vehicle for more than 10 minutes when the temperature is higher than 20°C. Once the time limit has expired, I don't hesitate to call the police and request they come quickly to release the dog from the car and ticket the offenders.

Just as I hang up the phone a man and a woman in their sixties, groceries in arms, approach the vehicle and ask me if there is a problem. These are, of course, the owners.

Calmly but firmly I explain that I am a veterinarian and that I just want to make sure their dog is not in danger. I tell myself to mind my own business but I have encountered this very same situation before.

I inform the couple of the dangers of leaving their animal in a vehicle where the temperature can quickly reach 50°C or 60°C. Because dogs don't sweat, they try to regulate their body heat by panting, which has the effect of increasing the ambient heat. Naturally, as a dog's temperature climbs so does his stress levels. The more anxious he becomes, the more he breathes and his body temperature continues to rise. All of this leads to the much-feared heat stroke.

In case of heat stroke, it is imperative to cool down the animal. Apply cold towels to the dog's body, wetted with a garden hose, or rub the animal gently with cooling pads. Then seek out a veterinarian who can treat the animal for shock, dehydration and edema.

But these Pawsies do not want to hear a word of my explanation. They're content to drown me in insults. They offer no excuses for their behaviour. On the contrary, they launch forth in a series of justifications: “We were only gone for 10 minutes,” “This is the first time we've left our dog in the car,” “The window was open,” “We would never hurt him," and so on. They're obviously shaken and they drive out of the parking lot at full speed.

After informing the police that the situation is resolved, I am suddenly remorseful. What if everything the couple told me was true? These few minutes didn't allow me to truly determine if these pet owners were acting in bad faith, simply careless or perhaps totally unaware of the perils of leaving a dog in a car in summer.

Above all else, I wanted to make sure they clearly understood the message:

  • Under no circumstances should an animal be left alone in an automobile
  • Puppies and older dogs are more likely to experience heat stroke
  • Animals suffering from a disease or obesity, and brachycephalic dogs (flat faced, short-nosed breeds such as Pekingese and Bulldogs) who have serious difficulty breathing, are also at higher risk

Knowing that it's very difficult to travel with a dog, I take this opportunity to invite our decision-makers to take concrete measures to facilitate better canine access in shops, public areas, resorts and other spaces. With improved accessibility, fewer dog owners would be forced, for lack of choice, to leave their pets in their vehicles, even for a few minutes.

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