There is no greater feeling than getting outside and sharing adventures with your dog. We are lucky to have such resilient and willing hiking companions by our side. I reside in San Diego where there is no shortage of beautiful hikes and outings to enjoy. However, due to the heat that the summers months (and even non-summer months) can bring, my dog usually stays at home. It is not uncommon to see people on hiking trails with dogs that are clearly in distress. What most people don’t realize is unlike humans, dogs cannot sweat and do not dissipate heat the same way we do. They also can not tell us when they experiencing an onset of heat stroke. If you’re feeling the heat, so is your dog!
Hydration is only one component of heat stroke so it’s important that you know and learn what’s normal for your dog. Water is the most important nutrient for maintaining a dog’s health, they can survive weeks without food but water is essential for their survival. Assessing your best friend’s hydration status is crucial, especially if you plan to hike in warmer climates.
How to assess your dogs hydration status:
The most ideal time to assess hydration status is actually at home when your pet is relaxed and feeling comfortable in order to establish a baseline of what’s normal for him/her. It is always a good idea to have your veterinarian assess your dogs physical health prior to doing any strenuous exercise such as hiking. During a visit, you can also discuss some of the methods below so you can feel confident with what to look for/ what you are doing.
1. Capillary Refill Time or CRT (aka we’re testing the pinkness of your dog’s gums): Gently open your dog’s mouth, you can use one hand to hold the mouth open and the other to test the gums. Take your index finger and gently push into your dog’s gums. If your dog is well hydrated, the area should turn a whiteish pink color and then within 1-1.5 seconds, it should return to the brighter pink color it was before. The gums should also appear to be moist. Remember, every dog is different so practice on your dog when they are resting and learn what is normal for them.
Pictured above: Technique for checking CRT.
2. Check Skin Turgor: The easiest way to check skin turgor is to have your dog stand in a comfortable position. Gently pull the skin between your dog’s shoulder blades up between your index finger and your thumb and make a “tent” with the skin, let go. If your dog is well hydrated, the skin should fall back down incredibly fast and return to normal. If your dog is dehydrated, the skin will slowly fall and might take several seconds to return to normal (remember, by now you’ll know what is normal for your dog, think back to your baseline). This will be an important thing to pay attention to while exercising with your dog.
Pictured above: Technique for checking turgor.
3. Overall Condition: you know your dog better than anyone. During these hydration checks, pay close attention to how your dog’s nose feels. Is it wet or moist? Also pay attention to how his or her eyes look, are they bright and alert? These observations will be a great baseline for what is normal for you dog.
Dangers of Heat Stroke:
Heat stroke is much more common than we think. As mentioned previously, dogs don’t sweat like humans do. They release heat from the body by panting and through the pads of their feet. When hiking, the heat from the ground is directly in contact with their paw pads and there’s no place for the heat to dissipate. Heat stroke is a circulatory issue and dehydration does play a part, but it is primarily caused by high heat and sun exposure. In humans, the first sign of heat stroke is usually a headache however, dogs have no way of telling us that their head hurts.
To avoid heat stroke, the optimal time to go adventuring with your best friend is long before the sun comes up. Taking your dog hiking after sunset can be tricky because it can take the ground a long time to cool off, even after the sun has gone down. The ideal hike would be in the morning or on a trail that is predominately shaded. If you do decide to hike during the day, choose trails that contain dog-friendly creeks, rivers and plenty of shade. These areas can provide your dog with a cool/relaxing area to cool off. Make sure you stop for frequent water breaks along the way. The sun will cause heat stroke long before dehydration will so shade is imperative. Plan ahead, make sure you are aware of the veterinary clinics in the area just in case something happens.
What to look out for:
In dogs, the first sign of heat stroke is weakness and staggering. You may notice your furry friend slowing down, this is one of the first indicators of heat stroke. Another early sign is foaming at the mouth or excessive drooling. Their gums will appear “tacky” and bright red. Vomiting, diarrhea and collapse will soon follow if no actions are taken.
In the event that you are hiking and your dog starts to show signs of heat stroke, the best thing to do is stop, find shade and begin to try and cool your dog down. The most common mistake people make is dumping water on their dog’s head. Remember, they release heat through their feet not their head so use your water to drench the pads of their feet.
Fan the dog off and try to assess your dog’s hydration status. Do not continue hiking at this point, if your dog continues to experience any of the signs above head to your nearest veterinarian as soon as possible. If you are deep into the hike, carry your friend and call the clinic as soon as you can to let them know you are coming. That way they can prepare and treat your dog as soon as you arrive.
Dogs are resilient. They would go to the ends of the earth if we asked them to, but that doesn’t mean we should. Heat stroke is more common than most people think, and it can be serious and life threatening. Listen to your gut, you know your best friend better than anyone.
Stay safe and happy adventuring!
About the Author:
Brittney Lechner is a registered veterinary technologist who graduated from Purdue University in 2012. She has been a Licensed Veterinary Technician for over 9 years and in the industry for over 12 years. She is currently working to become specialized in nutrition and is committed to helping pet owners any way she can. She resides in San Diego with her pup Ruben where they go exploring as often as they can.
Resources for heat stroke and hiking
AKC Website, “Heat Stroke In Dogs (Hyperthermia)”. <https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/canine-heatstroke/>. 14 JULY 2020.
Michael Hand. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition.5th Pages 49-65. Mark Morris Institute 2010.
“Assessing Hydration”. <https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/assessing-patient-hydration>. 18 JULY 2020.