Photos by Denise Heath
How to keep your dog safe in hot (and cold) weather
By Mark Olcott, DVM
As a veterinarian who has worked as both a general practitioner and ER vet, I’ve seen way too many cases of heat stroke, or HYPERthermia (an excessive elevation of body temperature). They’re some of the most heartbreaking cases we see, not only because they are avoidable, but also because the magnitude of the problem usually doesn’t declare itself until well after the heat exposure. This means that right around the time the owner is breathing a sigh of relief and thinking maybe their dog is OK, the dog starts getting sick. What’s worse, many patients with severe heat stroke can’t be saved despite aggressive, often expensive medical care. And it’s not just dogs that are affected by the heat; every summer we read the news about football players or other human athletes who get overheated, sometimes with catastrophic effects, despite the advanced care available in human medicine. A dog whose body temperature touches 107 degrees for 2 minutes will be much better off than a dog that stayed at 107 for an hour. The former could be survived; the latter probably cannot. So, at these core body temperature extremes, every second counts.
That’s why this article is going to focus on prevention more than treatment, because I am convinced that 100 percent of heat stroke cases can be avoided by following some simple steps. We’re also going to cover excessively low body temperature, or HYPOthermia, in your hunting partner and how to avoid that as well.
Heat Stroke: What is it?
The reason elevated body temperature is so dangerous is that the heat physically changes many of the proteins in our body that we don’t even think about but that keep us alive every day. Whether it’s the lining of the intestines, the blood clotting cascade, or cardiac muscle, proteins are the building blocks that run all these systems and they have a narrow band of body temperature where they work. As when you scramble an egg, once you heat these proteins past a certain point, they become denatured, or permanently damaged, and no longer work.
Clinical Signs of Heat Stroke
A dog in the early stages of overheating will be panting very hard, almost as if they are trying to “gulp” air. An astute handler can see the difference between a dog that is merely panting and a dog whose mouth is as open as it can get with a very wide tongue doing whatever they can to cool down. Often these dogs are seeking shade on their own, which is a warning that should never be ignored. These behaviors are a sign to the handler (or judging team) that a dog is starting to get overheated and immediate cooling is required.
Dogs in the later stages of heat stroke that have denatured the proteins that line their intestines will develop bloody diarrhea and vomiting, made even worse if their blood clotting factors are also permanently damaged. The way our bodies clot (and know when NOT to clot) is an immensely complex system that is all controlled by proteins, and patients with clotting disorders develop bruising or tiny hemorrhages on their skin or mucous membranes. Blood clots traveling to the brain can cause strokes, and those traveling to the lungs can cause fatal pulmonary embolisms. As you can imagine, a dog with these things going on inside her body is not going to eat, will be lethargic and in significant distress. Unfortunately, these signs usually don’t appear immediately, instead arising 12-24 hours after the overheating event.
How is it treated?
In the field, the most effective way to cool down a dog is with room temperature water (NOT ice or ice water) focusing on the armpits, groin, and ears. Stop these cooling efforts when the dog’s rectal temperature gets to 103 degrees, as continued cooling efforts can drop the body temperature too low. Hospital treatment is aimed at providing supportive care, like IV fluids and even plasma transfusions.
How can I avoid this?
Before: Whether it’s an experienced team at the Invitational or an early season hunting trip when the weather is still warm, it pays to show up with a dog that is temperature acclimated. The field portion of the IT involves a 60-minute run with a bracemate, and you don’t know whether you run in the morning or the afternoon until literally the day of the test. When I ran my dog Annie in 2019 in Ohio, we were the last brace of the day, and it was blazing hot. I believe that one of the reasons we did so well that year (Annie received a maximum score of 200) is that we trained in the heat. I started in early summer by running her in the heat for 30 minutes at a time with strategically planned “dips” in a creek or other water source every 10 minutes. Over the rest of the summer months and into September, I gradually worked her up to the point where we could do this for a total of 90 minutes. Train hard, test easy: I recommend that if you’re training for a UT run of 30 minutes, make sure your dog shows up able to handle 45 minutes. For a 20-minute NA run, train for 30 minutes.
During: Local NAVHDA chapters do a great job of making tanks or kiddie pools readily available during tests, and judges are also very mindful of planning stops at these oases during hot days. As a handler, you can ALWAYS take your dog to one of these areas to wet your dog down if you think he or she needs it. Additionally, get yourself into the habit of offering your dog a drink at regular intervals, such as every ten minutes, setting an alarm to remind yourself during the stress of test day or an early season hunt when temperatures are still high. I also water my dog after every bird contact, not only to wash out feathers from their mouth after a retrieve, but to ensure they drink some water.
After: When you come out of the field, whether it’s during a test or a day of hunting, spend several minutes cooling your dog down while you look them over for grass awns, seeds in the eyes, or burdocks on their feet.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention safe kenneling of dogs during the heat. There was a tragic case earlier this year where a handler lost two young dogs to heat stroke because of a simple oversight. In the heat, don’t put more than one dog in a kennel or crate as the body heat from the two dogs in a tight, enclosed space makes air movement, and therefore heat dissipation, much more difficult. Also ensure that your kennel is out of the sunlight not only in the morning when the sun is low but also in the middle of the day when the sun is high overhead. Finally, don’t leave dogs unattended for extended periods of time in the heat. Either you or a friend should check several times a day that they are in the shade, still have access to water, and are not overheated.
Hunting in the Cold
Because of some incredible adaptations to the cold, canines are fairly resistant to frostbite and other damaging effects of the cold. The areas of the body to be most concerned with are the feet, as the body’s warming blood flow is highest in the core and lowest in the extremities. Dr. Matt Nichols, a veterinarian and NAVHDA member in Russell, Kansas says that cold weather hunting brings its own set of unique challenges. “The number one thing I see in practice is that hunters don’t realize how tough ice and snow can be on their dog’s feet.” To that end, dog boots are one option to keep your dogs’ feet warm and protect them from iceballs or other sources of trauma. There are also waxes and sprays available, such as Mushers Secret and Tuf-foot, respectively, that can form a protective barrier on your dogs’ feet. All of these items can be found in pet stores or online.
As with so many things in medicine, prevention is more powerful than treatment. Having a plan to train for temperature extremes, being intentional in managing your dog during a test or hunt in harsh environments and returning her body temperature back to normal as quickly as possible afterwards are all vital parts of keeping your partner safe and ready for your next adventure. Have a great hunting season!!