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Dogs and heatstroke: Even a long walk can put your pet at risk

ABC Health logoABC Health 9/09/2018
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Spring is in the air and summer is not far away. To shake off those winter blues — and extra kilos — going for a long walk or jog with your dog sounds like an excellent idea.

But before you grab the leash and set off on a cracking 10-kilometre run, spare a thought for your pooch.

Every year, when the mercury starts to rise, vets see plenty of cases of heatstroke after a well-meaning owner pushes their dog too far, said Leonie Richards, head of general practice at the University of Melbourne's U-Vet clinic.

"Owners might think, 'The weather's good, so let's go out and get fit together'," she said.

"And most people know not to leave their pets in cars, but dogs certainly can get heatstroke by going for a long walk in warm weather."

Why are dogs so susceptible to heatstroke?

When we get warm, we sweat. It's like an evaporative cooling system through our skin.

Dogs don't have sweat glands all over their body. Instead, the main way they get rid of heat is through panting.

This isn't a particularly efficient way of cooling down, particularly in humidity, according to Sydney-based rehabilitation veterinarian Naomi Boyd.

When a dog starts to overheat, they'll usually pant harder and stop exercising.

But for some breeds, such as the more work-driven dogs like German Shepherds, there may be no warning signs until they're completely exhausted.

"Sometimes it can happen quite suddenly," Dr Boyd said.

"You can have a dog that was running, then it will collapse and that can be your very first sign.

"In those cases, even with quick action, it can have severe consequences for the dog."

Are some breeds at higher risk?

Breeds like German Shepherds and huskies, with their thick, insulating coats that keep body heat in, tend to overheat faster than less hairy dogs, Dr Richards said.

Of course, if your pet is carrying a few extra kilograms, that puts them at higher risk too.

And owners of pugs and bulldogs, for instance, should be particularly careful in the heat.

"Dogs with more squished-in faces, their whole respiratory system is a bit different and they often have quite long soft palates, which swell up when they're hot and bothered," Dr Richards said.

A swollen soft palate can cause airway obstructions.

If I think my dog has overdone it, what should I do?

If your beloved pooch seems flat or isn't its normal self, go straight to the vet, Dr Boyd said.

But if they just appear to be a bit more fatigued than normal, you can help them out at home.

"Wet your dog's skin down with cool water," she said.

"You do want it to be cool water and not cold water, because cold water causes vasoconstriction of blood vessels in the skin and we want to keep them nice and dilated to get rid of the heat."

Then pop a fan on your dog to enhance that evaporative cooling.

"If you've got a dog that's genuinely overheated, it will be happy with all those things and they'll probably move themselves out of the way of the fan once they're good again."

What else can I do to keep my dog cool while exercising?

If you've considered buying a leash that attaches to your bike, maybe think again, Dr Richards said — for your sake as well as your dog's.

"The dog can pull the owner off the bike and we've seen a few owners with broken shoulders because of that," she said.

"And it's much harder for a dog to safely slow down when they get tired."

On really hot days, it's tempting to take your dog for a walk once the sun's gone down.

If you do, make sure the pavements aren't still hot. Dr Richards said she regularly sees dogs with blistered feet and damaged paws.

For older, obese or hairy dogs, swimming is a great way to keep them active in the summer heat. It's also easier on their joints than walking or running.

I really want to run long distances with my dog. What can I do?

If you've both had a sedentary winter, don't assume your pet will be able to withstand previous activity levels.

Dogs can be wonderful exercise partners. And when it comes to endurance training, dogs are just like us.

Build up slowly so you and your dog don't get hurt — and don't assume dogs will take to long-distance running naturally.

A vet check-up at the start of any regime will help guide what your dog should and shouldn't do.

"Having an active dog is really important," Dr Boyd said.

"I don't want to scare anyone off starting to walk their dog. Just make sure it's gradual."

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