By Dr. Heather Kovac
Betty, a 4 year old female spayed French Bulldog, came to see me as an emergency when she was having trouble breathing and was in distress. When she arrived at the hospital, she was really struggling to breathe and had very loud respirations through her mouth. She was panting frantically.
On examination, her body temperature was 104.5 degrees F (normal is <102.5) and she was clearly laboring to catch her breath and was a bit frothy in her mouth. She wanted to lay down on her belly but kept getting up and down and could not get comfortable. As she continued to pant, her temperature continued to climb up to 105.5 degrees. She was having a heat stroke, also called hyperthermia. French Bulldogs have a condition known as brachycephalic airway syndrome. This is the term we use to describe dogs and cats who have a "smooshy face." Although they are cute, dogs with brachycephalic syndrome have been bred to have shorter snouts, compacting all the same structures as a dog with a long snout into a much smaller square footage. They still have 42 teeth, a hard and soft palate, a tongue, a larynx, and a trachea which are all compressed/narrowed making them less efficient at cooling themselves. Since dogs do not sweat through their skin like people, the only way they can cool themselves is through their respiratory system where heat is evaporated off their tongue and mouth. When a dog's temperature gets too high, their brain will send a signal that tells them to breathe through their mouth.
The Treatment Plan
Betty was really starting to get into a crisis situation. The internal organs including the brain do not tolerate elevated temperatures well and start to malfunction and can be damaged when the temperature is too high. And all that panting can lead to inflammation of the back of the throat, further constricting the airway. I needed to control her airway and help her breathe more efficiently, and fast! I immediately placed an IV catheter into her arm and gave her a quick acting sedative to allow me to intubate her with an endotracheal tube (place a breathing tube down her throat). Once the breathing tube was in place I could give her 100% oxygen and allow her to stop panting so she could start cooling down. We also placed cool wet towels on her body and applied rubbing alcohol to her footpads over and over. The footpads are the only place on a dog's body that release heat, other than the mouth. Her temperature came down to 105 and stayed there. I decided to also give her room temperature IV fluids to help bring her temperature down even more.
Slowly, over the course of about 40 minutes, I was able to get her temperature into the normal range. Once she was normothermic, her brain started to work more normally and she was able to come out of the sedation. I kept the endotracheal tube in as long as possible, until she was swallowing and moving her tongue. Betty slowly came around and sat up and just looked at us like, "What's up? Did I scare you? I'm fine now." I kept her on fluids a bit longer but she made a full and quick recovery from her scary ordeal.
Dog breeds with brachycephalic airway syndrome include Bulldogs, Pugs, Pekinese, Boxers, Shih Tzus, Boston Terriers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Lhasa Apsos. If you own one of these dogs, pay extra attention to the weather outside and do not encourage exercise during peak sun hours. Even a short walk around in the heat can trigger these dogs to start panting heavily and can induce heat stroke. Never leave dogs in a parked car, even on a cool day, as it could only take a few minutes to lead to an emergency.
Here is more information about dogs with brachycephalic syndrome: What is Brachycephalic Syndrome? (thedrakecenter.com)
Need to schedule your pet’s next appointment? Contact us here.
Located in Encinitas, CA, The Drake Center for Veterinary Care is an AAHA-accredited animal hospital. The Drake Center takes pride in being a leading source of information for all pet owners across the country however if you have any questions regarding pet care and do not live in Encinitas, CA or surrounding cities, we encourage you to contact your local veterinarian.