Deadly Dog Days of Summer


Source: Texas A&M University

My chest still tightens when I think of Rhett on his next-to-last visit to our hospital, his rear half wagging away as he pranced out of the exam room, a healthy and happy two-year-old.  Most pugs have an abundance of personality, but Rhett was unusually charismatic even for a pug.  His owners were thorough and careful with every decision they made about his health — Rhett was their first dog as a couple and he was their pride and joy.

The Andersons often arrived as a smiling threesome for Rhett’s scheduled veterinary exams, and I was always happy to see their name on my appointment list. But on one unusually hot day in August, the receptionist hurried back to the treatment area to announce that Rhett was on his way in and that the Andersons had sounded hysterical.  She had gathered from the call that Rhett likely had succumbed to hyperthermia, or heat stroke, and was either already gone or would be near death when he arrived. Mrs. Anderson had hung up before the receptionist could discuss starting treatment at home prior to heading in.

In the treatment room we prepared fluids, IV lines and oxygen delivery tubes. Shock treatments were readied, ECG lines laid out, and a fan plugged in, in the hope that it would not be too late when Rhett arrived.  The technicians met the Andersons out front and raced back with his body.  Rhett had no pulse, no respiration, no movement – his gums were ashen, colorless.  While one technician attempted to gather a history of what had happened, I led the rest of the medical team in an effort to resuscitate Rhett.  Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t bring him back.  It turned out that he had been like this, dead from heat stroke, when the Andersons had found him 20 minutes before their arrival at the clinic.

Less than an hour before, Rhett had been bounding around the house so energetically that the Andersons had decided to take him over to a friend’s house where Rhett had a playmate in a young mixed-breed dog.  Their friend kept the garage air-conditioned and empty, and it was an ideal place for the dogs to play on these hot days.  They loaded Rhett into the car and were getting ready to go when a neighbor came over and asked for help for a moment with moving a couple of items.

The moment quickly turned into half an hour, and Mrs. Anderson panicked when she remembered Rhett. Racing out to the car, the Andersons found him – collapsed, unmoving, and too warm to the touch.  Mr. Anderson doused him with cold water while Mrs. Anderson ran into the house to call us, but it was already too late.

Heat is an all too common cause of death for beloved dogs.  This example is just one of several that I could list.  Heart-wrenchingly, it is often fantastic owners with great intentions whose dogs succumb to this problem.  We’re all human, and it takes only one brief lapse in judgment or a single distraction to lead to an outcome that will haunt us for years. We need to be careful with our pets during our beautiful warm San Diego days.

·    Cars (even with windows down) can reach deadly temperatures in minutes. Even when the outside air temperature isn’t too high, heat can build up inside the car. Light passes through the windows into the car, where it’s absorbed by the interior surfaces (especially dark surfaces) and re-emitted as longer-wavelength heat radiation which can’t penetrate the glass to get out, causing heat-buildup.  Use common sense and caution when you have your dog in the car.

·    When your pets are outside in the yard, make sure they have a shady spot where they can get out of the sun.

·    Refill and change water bowls frequently.

·    Don’t count on your dog to stop running or walking when tired – dogs can literally run themselves to collapse.

·    Certain breeds and individual dogs have especially low tolerance to heat. Be aware of your own dog’s limitations. Be especially careful with elderly, very young, obese or ill animals, and with brachycephalic (or short-faced) dogs like pugs and bulldogs – they have a harder time controlling their temperature.

·    Rabbits housed outdoors are often victims of heat exhaustion. Move them into a cool, shady garage or inside the house on hot days.  Plastic bottles of frozen water can help to cool a hutch, but are sometimes inadequate, and care needs be taken that the bottles are not chewed up and eaten.

·    Pets and pools can spell disaster.  Supervise swimming pets, and don’t leave them unattended with access to a pool.

·    Dogs can sunburn and are thought to have sun-induced cancers like people. Limit sun exposure of light, hairless skin – around the nose, lips and ears, for instance.  Discuss with your veterinarian which sunscreens are appropriate.

·    Dogs, just like us, can burn their feet on the hot pavement.  Be aware of the temperature of the pavement and avoid pad burns by exercising dogs in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler.

Dr. Deirdre Brandes is a veterinarian at the Rancho Santa Fe Veterinary Hospita located at the Helen Woodward Animal Center. She can be reached at, or 858-759-8797. The cases described in Veterinary Vitals are true stories, but details about the patients have been changed to protect their privacy.