Dogs panting.

When you head outdoors on hot summer days, you probably remember to drink a lot of water, stay out of the direct sun, and take other steps to avoid heat stroke.

But it’s easy to forget that pets are vulnerable to this potentially deadly condition, too.

“It is a very common emergency for people to come into an emergency clinic with an overheated dog,” says Lori Bierbrier, D.V.M., a veterinarian and medical director of the Community Medicine program at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

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Heat stroke can come on seemingly suddenly in dogs, and the symptoms may not be obvious if you don’t know what to look for.

“Dogs don’t sweat the way we do to stay cool,” Bierbrier says. “Their only means of cooling off is to pant.”

But how can you tell the difference between a dog just having fun in the sun and one who is in the potential danger zone?

Experts reveal what to look out for—and what to avoid. 

Know the Warning Signs

The early signs of an overheated pup are often dehydration (when the body loses more fluid than it can take in) and heat exhaustion (when the body temperature rises above normal). If, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the dog's body temperature continues to rise to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, that can turn into heatstroke—which can be a deadly emergency.

Symptoms of overheating and dehydration can include heavy panting, lethargy, a dry nose and gums, sunken, dry-looking eyes, sometimes a bright red tongue, and loss of skin elasticity. (A good way to check for skin elasticity, according to the AKC, is to gently pinch a dog’s skin between your thumb and forefinger. If it takes longer than normal to spring back to its original position, your pup might be dehydrated.)

At this point, you’ll want to start trying to cool the dog down (see below).

If a dog’s body temperature gets too high, says Bierbrier, the situation can turn more serious, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and unresponsiveness, as well as difficulty breathing, quickened heart and respiratory rate, drooling, weakness, stupor, and even collapse.

At that stage, it’s often “not just heat exhaustion but turning into heatstroke,” says Bierbrier. “That's when there can actually be damage to the rest of their body, and they can even have seizures and die.” 

Act Fast

If you notice any of the early symptoms of an overheating pup, get it indoors as soon as possible, preferably into a room with air conditioning. And offer it cold water to drink.

You can also cool a dog down by wetting or dunking its paws in cold water, running water over its body in a bathtub or with a hose, or applying a cool compress to its head, says Leni Kaplan, D.V.M., a lecturer at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“If it’s not anything super serious,” Bierbrier says, “they will respond really quickly and feel better.”

Bierbrier notes that there’s no set time it should take for your dog to improve, but you should pay attention to the trend of improvement. If symptoms seem to be worsening after 5, 10, or 15 minutes of being in a cool room and getting water, for example, it might be time to worry.

“If you notice anything more serious, like a seizure, they’re not responsive, or anything like that, just rush them right away to the veterinarian,” Bierbrier says.

Help Your Dog Beat the Heat

The best way to avoid having to treat heat exhaustion and heatstroke in your dog is to think ahead.

Plan your walks. If you know it’s going to be a hot day, walk your pet early in the morning or late at night, Bierbrier says, and always bring water (collapsible dog bowls come in handy when you’re on the go). Avoid hot pavement by walking them on grass, if possible.

Set limits on outdoor play. Don’t rely on the dog to let you know when it has had enough during a walk or outdoor play session. Your pup may appear to be having a good time, keeping up with you on a walk or running around at a dog park, but signs of heat exhaustion may not be obvious before it's causing problems, Bierbrier says. It’s a good idea to end play sessions or walks early on a hot day.

Be careful where you leave your dog. If you leave your dog at home during a hot day, it's best to keep it indoors with the AC running, and with plenty of water. If you must leave it outside, make sure there is access to shade and water. There’s no set temperature at which dogs are most comfortable, but Bierbrier says you should aim to keep your home at a temperature you would feel comfortable in, too.

Groom appropriately. If your dog has long hair, it’s okay to trim its fur, “but if you cut the hair down to the skin, you’re actually taking away from their ability to regulate their body temperature,” Bierbrier says. Hair traps in warm air when it’s cold, and cool air when it’s hot.

Know your dog's risk level. A dog’s overall health, breed, and age may all play a role in its susceptibility to heat exhaustion.

Certain health conditions, such as laryngeal paralysis, can make dogs less tolerant to heat, Kaplan says.

And dogs with squished noses, such as bulldogs and pugs, can’t tolerate hot temperatures because of the anatomy of their upper airway, say Bierbrier and Kaplan. Arctic dogs, such as huskies and chow chows, are best suited to cold temperatures.

If you have these breeds, minimize their outdoor activities on hot days and be particularly careful about where you leave them during the day.

Newborn puppies sometimes struggle to regulate their body temperature, Bierbrier says. And older dogs tend to have more medical issues, such as heart and lung disease, which can make them more sensitive to heat.

Never leave a pet in a car unattended. Last year, at least 41 dogs died from heatstroke after being left in hot cars, according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This is one of the most common, and potentially deadly, mistakes people make, since the temperature inside of a car can swiftly reach dangerous levels.

This is true even if you leave your dog (or child) for only a few minutes, even if you crack a window, and even if it isn’t sweltering outside. On a 70 degree day, for example, the inside of a car can reach as high as 90 degrees. “On an 85 degree day, it only takes 10 minutes for a car to reach 102 degrees,” Bierbrier says.