Management of a Heat Intolerant Dog

By Joyce Geier  - Originally published OBCC newsletter 2000

It began as a simple training day in June 1996. It ended when Troy went down from heat stroke. It resulted in a lifelong heat intolerance and dog management issue. I am not a biologist. (I surely was an idiot for allowing my dog to work until he collapsed!) But I am diligent, I've done my homework, and I have been successful in managing a heat intolerant dog. So, here are 10 things that I've learned; may they be useful to you. If I can leave you with only one message, it's this: learn about it and prevent it!

  1. A fact: any dog will overheat. It is very important to know that, once a dog overheats, they will do it again, and much more easily and quickly than before. This is a vicious cycle; each episode sets the dog up for another episode.
  2. Heat intolerance is an acquired condition that can be prevented. Once acquired, it can be managed, but it can't be cured, it stays around forever.  
  3. Know what conditions can set a dog up for overheating. Climatic conditions such as high air temperature, high humidity, and lack of air movement are classic. An important lesson I've learned: it's not just the climatic conditions where we are, it's the climatic conditions where the dog is. For instance, tall damp hay on a hot sunny day produces a lot of humidity and blocks all breezes, creating a steam bath for the dog - even though there's a breeze in our face.
  4. Emotional condition also plays a role in overheating; when a dog is stressed, it will overheat faster.  
  5. Physical conditioning is critical; dogs that are unfit, overweight (or too thin), or on poor diets are more prone to overheat. Physical conditioning is also the key to managing a heat intolerant dog.  
  6. There are physical illnesses that are exacerbated by exercise and show similar symptoms, but have nothing to do with heat tolerance. Myasthenia gravis and certain forms of heart disease are just two examples. If you suspect a heat problem ... Go see your vet!
  7. You can learn to recognize the symptoms without having to carry a thermometer around in your pocket. Here they are in an increasing order of severity:
    1. Panting, beyond the ordinary.  
    2. Roaring, excessive noise when panting, on inhale and exhale. This symptom seems to appear at different times in different dogs; some roar quite early, others never do - but it's a dead giveaway when it occurs.  
    3. Extended rear limbs and or roached back when the dog stops moving, even though the dog is still moving fine.  
    4. Standing with a rear foot inverted; that is the top of the foot is resting on the ground. 
    5. Difficulty standing, due to hind end weakness. The dog may still move fine. 
    6. Difficulty moving; the wobbles. The dog may have much more difficulty walking than trotting.  
    7. Difficulty trotting.  
    8. Collapse; can't stand at all.
    9. Seizures.  
    10. Renal failure. 
  8. The day-to-day management aspect takes time and commitment
  9. Handling at a trial, during a run, can make a big difference. As an aside, there is quite a controversy about wetting dogs before a run and/or clipping the chest and belly. I personally believe that wetting only helps when the air is very dry and it's done immediately before a run; and I have no opinion on clipping. But to each their own.  
  10. It's easy to blow it, and once you do, it's back to square one - and it will be even harder to manage heat intolerance the next time. It will come on quicker the next time, and the warning signs will go by faster.  

So how can you put all of this into practice? Well, I don't know what would work for other dogs, but this is what works for Troy: he's on a good quality high octane protein and fat diet; he gets fed once a day. A high protein small snack about 20 minutes before he runs or does work makes a big difference. I maintain his weight very closely - if it deviates at all there is a noticeable difference in his performance.

To condition, we begin with walks in the field at least four times a week and then add biking 3 to 4 times a week so that we have long steady conditioning distances. We take about 6 weeks to work up to 3 mi over rolling hills at a very steady speed. And we continue this all season long watching for any biking induced injuries or problems. I like to substitute 30 minutes of swimming whenever I can. And of course, we work stock which has the finishing touches for conditioning. I try not to work the dog too hard in hot or humid conditions. I don't go out of my way to avoid them - I just use common sense and quit sooner instead of later. I pay attention to my handling at trials - it simply makes a big difference. I've gotten my dog through some trials during awful conditions by taking it slow and easy and reining in his pace; by being careful not to jerk him around with commands; and by giving him breathers every now and then. We may hesitate a bit just before the pen or just before the shed for instance. I've also been known to pull or retire my dog or really slow down and just run the clock out.  

My biggest lesson learned? Heat episodes are caused by handler inadequacies, not dog faults. We have wonderful dogs that will, literally, work until they drop; it is our responsibility to see they never do. 

Nerys in the tub - Photo credit Helen Knibb

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