Avoiding Heat Stroke in Hunting Dogs
Casey Heimerl | Wildlife Biologist
Rattlesnakes, barbed wire fences, porcupines, cactus, blue-green algae… the list of potential maladies to a hunting dog is enough to make anyone nervous about hitting the prairies and wetlands this fall. However, the most deadly culprit that takes the lives of hunting dogs every year is often overlooked. Heat. Back in 2003, South Dakota’s opening weekend of pheasant season saw temperatures that reached up into the 90s. During a period of three days, it was estimated that over 100 hunting dogs died due to heat-related causes throughout the state. This may be sobering to hear, however, there is good news. Unlike other hunting injuries, heat stroke can be completely avoided if proper precautions are taken.
WHAT IS HEAT STROKE?
Heat stroke occurs when a dog’s body temperature increases beyond a range where the body’s cooling mechanisms are able to dissipate heat fast enough to keep up. If body temperature remains elevated for an extended period of time multiple organ failure and death can occur. The temperature when heat stroke occurs depends on the individual dog and what condition they are in. Normal dog body temperature can vary from 100-102.5°F. Typically when body temperature increases to 106 – 107°F heat stoke becomes a concern, however some breeds of well-conditioned hunting dogs may reach these temperatures with no cause for alarm. It is time to be worried when your dog’s temperature doesn’t fall or continues to rise after exercise is ended. Consider adding a simple rectal thermometer to your hunting first aid kit to monitor your dog’s body temperature while in the field. It is also a good idea to take your dog’s temperature on a cool day during moderate exercise to get a baseline temperature that your dog works at. It is important to realize it doesn’t need to be what we consider “hot” outside for a dog to develop heat stroke. Any dog breed is susceptible, however dogs that are overweight, old, thick coated, and short-muzzled are at a higher risk.
How to Avoid Heat Stroke
The easiest way to prevent heat stroke is to avoid the conditions that would lead to it in the first place. A general rule of thumb that some dog trainers use is to avoid hunting or strenuous activity when the outdoor temperature plus humidity exceeds 140. However, this guideline is used for dogs that are in excellent shape and should be adjusted accordingly for dogs that are overweight and under conditioned. Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to hunt your dog when the temperature exceeds 70 degrees unless there is a good breeze, low humidity or it is overcast.
If you just can’t pass up a hunting trip on a warm day, target areas where there are known water sources that your dog can use to cool off. Don’t rely on some grassland pond that you might have recalled a year or two ago only to find out that it has since dried up. During early grouse season, I will often take my dogs to the breaks along Lake Oahe, or to the National Grasslands where I know there are permanent stock dams. One word of caution: before allowing your dog into water during the late summer and early fall, be sure to watch for blue-green algae blooms which develop under warm conditions. Blue- green algae gives the water a pea soup color and has an awful swampy smell. If a dog drinks any infected water the toxins produced by the bloom can lead to sickness and death. During dry years rattlesnakes often hang out on dams and are another thing to keep an eye out for.
Always bring plenty of water with you into the field and do not rely on watering back at the truck. I typically hunt with a backpack style game bag that can hold multiple water bottles for both me and my dogs. It is much easier to keep your dog hydrated before they start heating up, so don’t wait until your dog is panting heavily and acting thirsty before providing water. A good trick to try at the beginning of a hunt is to cut your dog loose to hunt for 5-10 minutes, then call them back in to water them. Cut them loose another 5-10 minutes and water them a second time. This will help to make sure they are hydrated at the start of a hunt.
Most hunting dogs will get into a bird brain mode and are not good about telling you when they need a break, so you need to be the one responsible to make that decision for them. An easy way to tell if your dog is well-hydrated is through the skin-pinch test. Gently grab some skin near your dog’s shoulder blades and release. If the pinched skin quickly goes back into place your dog is hydrated and if it is slow to return your dog is dehydrated.
Symptoms and Treatment of Heat Stroke
Being able to recognize the symptoms of heat stroke is crucial to your dog’s recovery. Early signs include excessive panting, often with excessive drooling and a glassy-eyed (confused) look. Other symptoms include unwillingness to move, diarrhea, vomiting, and uncoordinated movement.
If you see any of these signs you need to get your dog cooled down immediately. Completely submerge their body in cool water if there is any nearby, but be sure to hold them to prevent drowning since they will have poor coordination. Otherwise, get them to a shady area and squirt water on areas of exposed skin around their groin, armpits and belly. Once you get back to your vehicle, blast the AC directly on the dog and get to your veterinarian immediately. You will also need to be monitoring your dog’s rectal temperature and stop treatment if it drops to 103°F to prevent overcooling.
Once you receive veterinary care, your dog’s prognosis will depend on how high their body temperature reached and how long it was elevated. Heathy, well-conditioned dogs will have a greater chance of recovery. Unfortunately, any dog that survives heat stroke will have likely suffered permanent damage to their thermoregulatory system and will be at a higher risk for it to occur again.
Heat stroke is very serious and scary to experience, but with proper preparation and common sense it doesn’t need to keep you from enjoying your hunt with your companion this fall.
*Photo Credits: Sam Stukel and Casey Heimerl