Recognising early signs of heatstroke in dogs can save lives

More than half of dogs that are taken to veterinary clinics with severe heatstroke go on to die from the condition, according to a new study , but recognising the milder signs of heatstroke allows owners to take decisive action.

Veterinary researchers at Nottingham Trent University and the Royal Veterinary College have found that the risks to dogs are much lower if these cases are detected and managed earlier.

They are now urging owners to be more vigilant in watching out for the early, more mild clinical signs of heatstroke in their dogs so they can take action before their pet’s condition worsens and becomes potentially fatal, particularly as the summer season approaches and temperatures start to rise.

The researchers examined anonymised clinical records of more than 900,000 UK dogs as part of the ‘VetCompass’ study.

They found that respiratory changes and lethargy were the two most common early signs of heatstroke. Heatstroke is becoming an increasing problem for dogs – particularly as global temperatures continue to rise – and cases are expected to become more common in the UK.

The researchers identified 856 heat-related incidents in their study that required veterinary care over a two-year period, making this the largest study on heatstroke ever carried out in the UK.

They found that 111 (14.0%) of these heatstroke cases were categorised as severe, with these dogs showing a range of serious clinical signs such as seizures, vomiting and loss of consciousness. Of these severe cases, 63 (57%) went on to die of the condition.

Once dogs lost consciousness at that severe stage, they were 37 times more likely to die, the researchers found.

Dogs with the early and milder forms of heatstroke generally showed respiratory changes (seen in 69% of mild cases), such as laboured breathing, and lethargy (seen in 48% of mild cases) where dogs displayed tiredness or changes in behaviour such as not wanting to exercise.

Almost all dogs that presented for veterinary care with these early signs survived (98%).

This is key, the researchers say, because earlier recognition of these milder signs allows owners to take decisive action such as contacting their veterinary practice, giving their dog a drink or cooling it with water, bringing it inside and stopping exercise.

“Heatstroke is a potentially fatal condition inflicted on dogs and is expected to become even more common as temperatures continue to rise,” said lead researcher Emily Hall, a veterinary surgeon in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences.

She said: “If the dog is not quickly cooled or treated by a veterinary surgeon, its condition can rapidly worsen. It is vitally important that owners know to take action when their dogs show these milder signs, in order to prevent progression to heatstroke. Once dogs get to that severe stage, it’s really a coin toss as to whether they will survive.

“We hope the grading tool will be useful for veterinary surgeons as there has never been a clear definition for dogs such as this.”