Summer is a dangerous time for K-9s
Heat injury remains one of the top causes of sudden death in working dogs, and even in less-serious cases, can limit the effectiveness of law enforcement dogs in the field. Research in this field over the past ten years has led to new ideas about the prevention and treatment of this dangerous condition. We’ve highlighted some important information below.
1. Heat injury is generally classified into two forms: First, is “classic” or confinement heat injury, such as when the dog is confined in an environment that becomes too hot, such as a car without air conditioning, or a crate in direct sunlight. According to a study in 2012 on causes of death in law enforcement dogs, this accounted for about 75% of cases. The other main type is exertional heat injury, where the dog becomes too hot from exercise or hard work. Both can be equally dangerous, but two different approaches are used to prevent the two different types.
2. Prevention of confinement-related heat injury involves ensuring your vehicle is properly equipped with a heat alarm system, as well as double-checking the dog in the vehicle often, every 10-15 minutes if possible. Many cases from that 2012 study showed that the canine handler had taken appropriate steps to ensure the safety of the dog in the vehicle: the air conditioner and engine were running, and an alarm system was in place, however a mechanical problem with the vehicle (usually dead battery and engine shut-off) caused the air conditioner and alarm system to fail. Newer alarm systems may come with an auxiliary battery that keeps the alarm system working even if the vehicle battery or engine fails. Still, we recommend that alarm systems should be a back-up to regularly checking on your dog when it’s necessary to leave them in the vehicle. The majority of cases where the handler “forgot” the dog in the vehicle occurred at the end of a night shift where fatigue played a large part in the situation. Knowing this increases the risk of distraction, so take extra care at the end of night shifts and take extra steps to remind yourself the dog is in the car.
3. Rapid changes in outdoor temperature, especially in springtime, are high-risk for exertional heat injury in working dogs. Even if it doesn’t feel warm to you if the average temperature has been 35-45° F and you suddenly have a nice 60° F day, that’s as much as a 35° F increase in temperature and your dog may not be acclimated to handle that. We humans can sweat to dissipate heat, but dogs rely mostly on panting to cool down, and unlike sweating, this requires a high degree of cardiovascular fitness and acclimation to hotter environments to be completely effective. Currently, there is no known gadget, supplement, or product that can effectively and reliably keep your dog cool during hard exercise, and the best way to ensure acclimation and fitness for work in hot weather is to train in hot weather! Start out slowly, and incrementally work your dog in warmer environments for longer periods of time. Also, actively cooling your dog in between short bouts of exercise can increase his endurance and tolerance of work. Don’t wait until your dog looks “too hot” to cool him down. Air conditioning, free access to water, sponging him with cool water down to his skin can all help keep him cool throughout the day and get him ready for his next bout of work.
An in-depth webinar on prevention and treatment of heat injury in working dogs is available at https://www.vettacgroup.com/web-based-training
The ongoing medical care, upkeep and equipment for K-9s can be very expensive and most K-9 units simply do not have the funds for these ever increasing costs. To help provide grants for heat alarms to agencies and prevent K-9s dying from heat exhaustion, please donate to our K-9 Heat Alarm Fund. The K-9s really need your help!
You can save a K-9’s life!
Janice L. Baker, DVM, MS, DACVPM
Contributing writer: Dr. Janice Baker
Janice Baker DVM, MS, DACVPM is a veterinarian with over 18 years combined service in the U.S. Army on active duty and Army Reserve service, where she worked primarily with Special Operations canine and combat medical programs. In addition to being a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Baker holds a Master’s degree in Veterinary Forensics and is a board-certified specialist in Veterinary Preventive Medicine, along with over 15 years in emergency practice. She uses this combined experience to lead Veterinary Tactical Group in their focus on occupational health and performance of working dogs.