Heat-related illness should be front of mind for dog owners
By Casey SillLead photo by Marissa Jensen
As we wade into knee-deep summer and temperatures begin to routinely hit high marks, heat-related illness should be front of mind for dog owners.
July and August are peak training and trialing months across much of the US, and dogs can begin to overheat quickly in high temperatures — especially in an excited environment like a hunt test. Dr. Jennell Appel is a Georgia-based veterinarian who travels cross-country to retriever hunt tests and field trials every summer with a mobile sports medicine practice. She said heat-related illness is one of the more common issues she treats.
“It’s such a fine line,” she said. “The difference between a dog staying at a normal temperature and starting to overheat might be just an extra minute or two, where the dog can’t find a mark and has to put on a longer than normal hunt or something like that.”
Dogs’ normal body temperatures are slightly higher than humans — between 101 and 102.5 degrees. This will increase slightly during heavy activity, but things start to get dangerous if they creep into the 106-107 range. At 109 or above, they’re in big trouble.
It’s easy to let the idea of heat stroke keep you indoors all summer, and there are certainly times when it’s best to just stay home from a hunt test or training session — but with some decent planning, the right equipment and a touch of common sense, dogs can continue to run and train safely as the temperatures rise.
Here are four tips and tricks to help keep your pup cool and safe in the summer heat.
Wet them down before they run
It seems obvious to soak a dog after they run to cool them off, but Dr. Appel always soaks her dogs before a training session or hunt test. It keeps them calm and comfortable, and also helps maintain a normal temperature when they start to exercise.
“Even just getting their exposed skin wet, and not necessarily the whole dog, will help with the evaporation process,” she said. “Heat comes out of the skin, and if the skin is already cool, the dog’s temperature won’t rise as quickly.”
A quick soak in a pond works best for this, but avoid throwing too many bumpers if you’re trying to keep the dog cool. Believe it or not, long swims are more work for a dog than retrieving on land and can defeat the purpose of trying to keep them cool.
Watch your kennel temps
Folks travel long distances to train and test in the summer months, which means a lot of kennel time for dogs. While a dog locked in a hot car can be a recipe for disaster, if done properly it’s easy to keep kennel temperatures cooler than exterior temperatures.
Airflow is most important. These days, all kinds of companies make small, battery powered fans that put out plenty of breeze and have long battery lives. One of these in conjunction with open windows on a camper shell works well to regulate temperatures. If it’s extra hot, Dr. Appel will sometimes line the inside of the kennels with ice packs to help keep the air chilled.
Several companies also make keychain sized Bluetooth thermometers, which is a great way to monitor kennel temperatures if you’re on the road and your dogs are in a trailer or truck bed.
All gimmicks aside, the most important rule for kennel safety is don’t put your dogs away hot.
Even in moderate temperatures, take the time to cool your dog off with water, breeze and shade before they go back in the box.
Have the right tools
There are several first aid tools that’ll come in handy in hot weather, first and foremost being a couple of good thermometers. Some folks can be a little squeamish about taking a rectal temperature, but on an all-day outing in high temps, it’s a good idea. Why a couple instead of just one? Because inevitably, one of them won’t work.
The other essentials for Dr. Appel are spray bottles, one with water, one with isopropyl alcohol. The water comes in handy for the cooling technique mentioned earlier, and can also be used to rinse the back of a dog’s mouth out after they run, as phlegm build up in the mouth can restrict breathing.
Isopropyl alcohol is one of the best ways to quickly cool a dog that’s on the edge of heat stroke. Spray on exposed skin, the inside the ears and especially on the pads of the feet to rapidly accelerate evaporation. The mixture should be at least 70 percent alcohol.
Know your dog
Dr. Appel’s number one rule is to know your dog and use common sense. Signs of heat stroke can be obvious — weakness, disorientation, seizures. But a dog that’s beginning to overheat might show much more subtle signs. A heavily curled tongue is a good example. But the number one sign is disinterest or a change in behavior.
“If the dog is looking around aimlessly, not paying attention to your signals or just not able to focus, that’s a huge indicator,” she said. “They’re telling you that they’ve had enough.”
This is where the common sense comes into play. A lot of handlers, especially at national level hunt tests, have worked incredibly hard to get where they are. The last thing they want to do is scratch, but every dog has its limits and it’s the handler’s responsibility to be in tune to those boundaries.
“We have a ton of tools at our disposal to make sure our dogs stay cool in hot weather. But even with those tools, sometimes conditions are still unsafe,” she said. “And you have to put the dog’s safety first, not what you want to get out of a test or training session.”
Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at email@example.com.