By Alexis Newman, DVM
Summer will be here soon… For those of us in some of the more ‘seasonal’ regions, this is certainly welcome news.
However, every year, working K9s become ill and some die from heat exposure.
Most heat-related K9 deaths are preventable and occur either from being left in a vehicle or worked beyond their ability. The risk of hyperthermia and heat stroke is related to the environmental temperature, the dog’s body temperature, and the amount of time those temperatures remain elevated.
Just as for handlers, the heat can affect some K9s more than others based on several factors. By preparing yourself and your K9, you may be able to avoid this life-threatening condition. These factors are important and cannot be overlooked.
How well your K9 can tolerate the heat can depend in part on:
Acclimation to the heat. In the Chicagoland area, my patients can work in temperatures less than 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter that can be followed by temperatures well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Other K9s work in conditions that are not so variable and therefore may not need time to become accustomed to such changes. It is important that K9s are allowed to become acclimated to the changing conditions before they are expected to perform. Acclimation can include increased time outdoors as well as ramping up the exercise program while the weather is beginning to change.
Fitness level. It happens to handlers and K9s alike. During cold weather, it is easy to let exercise and fitness lapse. K9’s fitness programs often mirror that of the handler. If the handler is not running or spending as much time outdoors, it is likely that the K9 is not being exercised as much either. This, of course, can lead to decreased tolerance to heat and activity. Keeping your K9’s nutrition and conditioning appropriate during the colder times can diminish the problem.
Ensure safety of the squad. As we are seeing in the Chicago area this time of year, the temperature can change quite quickly from one day to the next. You may go for months without using the air conditioning or testing the heat alarm. Are you confident that they will both work on the first hot day you need to rely on them? Do not wait until the day you need them to figure out if they work. Every year, several working K9s succumb to becoming overheated in hot vehicles. Be certain the air conditioning and heat alarm are working before you need them – they may save your K9’s life.
A non-working dog’s normal body temperature can range from approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Active working dogs can have temperatures that run 102-103 degrees at rest. A working K9 can have his body temperature increase 2-3 degrees performing normal duties, but that temperature should decline quickly when the work stops and the dog is given a cooler environment. For example, an active K9 may have a body temperature at 103.0 prior to a deployment. Following a short search or bite work, the body temperature may increase to 105.5. A long track or working on a hotter day can easily lead to temperatures that are 106-107. An important aspect is that this temperature decreases rapidly when the exercise is completed. In general, their temperature should drop back down to the base temperature within about 15 minutes of taking measures to cool the dog.
Problems arise when a dog’s body temperature stays elevated for an extended period of time. This can be due to a number of factors, including impaired cooling abilities, confinement, and prolonged activity.
K9 factors for your individual partner are important. Anything that hinders your K9’s ability to cool himself puts him at risk of hyperthermia.
These can include:
- Thick or long coat
- Medical conditions which can affect panting (laryngeal paralysis in Labradors is one example)
- Poor body condition (previously discussed)
- Dogs with dark colored hair may become overheated more quickly and take a longer time to cool.
These are factors with which may not be easily changed, but it is important that the handler be aware of them and monitor closely for symptoms related to overheating.
Handler Awareness & Readiness
Environmental factors also affect if and how quickly your partner can become overheated. Since panting provides cooling by evaporation of fluid into the environment, the amount of humidity can affect how effective this can be. It is important for the handler to keep in mind that the cooling mechanism of panting or sweating is hindered in a humid environment. Therefore, handlers must have even more vigilant monitoring and likely limit the K9’s working time to avoid hyperthermia.
Carry water. It is important for handlers to plan for a deployment. If you are going to need to drink water while working your K9, then it is likely that your K9 will need to drink. Whether you carry a portable bowl or know where to access water, be prepared to have water available to your dog.
Carry a digital thermometer. These are inexpensive, small, lightweight, and fit in just about any pocket of your pants or vest. As discussed before, working dog temperatures can become quite elevated. It is imperative that a handler be able to recognize signs of overheating. A thermometer can help with monitoring and knowing when your dog has had enough. Symptoms of K9 hyperthermia may include stumbling, loss of attention, and laying down unexpectedly. If you have a thermometer available, checking a rectal temperature may be quick and easy, helping guide you in how to handle your K9. If the temperature is greater than 106-107, it is likely time to stop work and begin cooling measures, even if that involves just rest.
Prepare for subcutaneous fluid administration. Many K9s can do well and continue to work once they are cooled after rest. Other times, more actions or treatment is needed to physically cool the K9. This is a skill that can easily be learned from your veterinarian who can often supply you with the materials needed. Most K9s tolerate receiving subcutaneous (SQ) fluids well, especially if they are hot and tired when they are administered. Receiving SQ fluids can sometimes make the difference between allowing your dog to begin to work again or having to end their work.
Squad car – you’ve heard it before. A hot car is like an oven. As you can see by the chart below, your squad car can become much hotter and more dangerous than the outside temperature. Opening the windows will not always be enough to keep your partner from overheating. It is essential that you check on your K9 partner frequently and do not rely on the electronic sensors. Many of these sensors are extremely reliable and well designed, but no technology is perfect. Anything electronic can have problems and fail. If you lose your partner to heat stroke, it will not be any comfort that you had a sensory heater.
Your K9 has one goal… to succeed and do what you ask of him or her… to be rewarded. When is the last time your K9 partner refused to work? I’d say for most, the answer is NEVER. Whether you ask them to search, track, or trail, that’s what they will do…until they succeed, or collapse. The only one watching out for them is you, the handler. It is essential to monitor your partners for signs that he or she may be becoming overheated. Symptoms of hyperthermia can include:
- Stumbling or falling
- Extremely pink or red gums
- Excessive panting that does not slow following cessation of work
- Slowing down or not keeping up – every K9 I have ever seen tracking or trailing is ahead of the handler. If your K9 suddenly is falling behind, there is likely a problem.
What to do when signs of overheating occur:
- STOP all activity. Allow your partner to lay down, preferably in the shade.
- Cover him with cool water. Do not apply a wet blanket or towel as this can insulate the heat.
- Offer water as long as he is mentally aware and not vomiting.
- Subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids if available – most large breed dogs can tolerate 1 liter of fluids via this route. If your K9 is progressing to heatstroke and the temperature is not decreasing, IV fluids will need to be initiated, but the subcutaneous fluids may help for less critical temperature elevations.
- Administer additional cooling measures such as fans or air conditioning if available.
- Monitor the body temperature. The degree of body elevation is not as important as the length of time that the body is at the temperature.
Again, a K9 while actively working may have a body temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit. However, he should be able to cool quickly once work is ceased; temperature should decrease steadily, and should become normal within 15-30 minutes.
If the body temperature remains elevated for an extended period of time your K9 is at risk for developing heat stroke. If the temperature reaches 106 degrees for a sustained period, there is risk of organ failure.
A K9 suffering from hyperthermia who develops signs of organ failure, very often succumbs despite aggressive medical care. Prevention is the key, as true heatstroke is often fatal.
Summary To Minimize Risk Of K9 Hyperthermia
- Prepare your K9 and your supplies for heat.
- Monitor for symptoms of overheating.
- Once hyperthermia is identified, take steps to cool your K9.
- Have items readily available to identify and care for your K9: rectal thermometer, cooling packs, portable water bowl, bottled water, fan or air conditioning in squad car.
- Seek veterinary care immediately if your K9 is not cooling and showing symptoms of heatstroke, such as vomiting, weakness, and excessive panting.
- Prevention is most important. Be prepared. Be aware of your K9’s behavior. Be ready to act if your K9 becomes overheated.
Dr. Alexis Newman received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Iowa State University in 1998. Following veterinary school, she completed a Surgical and Emergency Internship at California Animal Hospital in West Los Angeles. She has worked with police and working dogs for many years and understands the needs of the K9, the handler, and police departments. Her passion of working with police dogs and their handlers led to starting Partners and Paws Veterinary Services in June 2013. Dr. Newman also enjoys working with sporting groups, rescue groups, and civilian dogs and cats.
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