Dead dog season


Lars so hot he almost looks to be steaming during a creek cool-down stop/Craig Medred photo

The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska hit 75 degrees on Wednesday and in the sun on the south-facing slopes of the Chugach Mountain above the city it was 80 or hotter. This was, for Alaska, dead dog weather.


If you love canines, forget the over-wrought attention the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race gets if a dog or two dies in the winter because summer is really what kills in the 49th state. These deaths rarely, if ever, make the news though if you talk to enough Anchorage veterinarians you will discover the deaths likely number in the dozens if not hundreds every year.

If you’re skeptical, ask your dog friends. It isn’t hard to find an Alaskan whose had a dog either die from heat stroke or suffer a close call.

And note what veterinarian Mike Becker told NBC Los Angeles, which has seen a spate of dogs stricken with heat stroke (hyperthermia) in recent days:

“This time of year is the most dangerous. Even though it seemed like a subtle increase, only 15 degrees, it was enough for this dog to become overheated internally.”

Fifteen degrees.

The number is important to understand because dogs – unlike people – are very good at acclimatization. They can adjust their internal thermostat to the climate in which they are living. The problem is full acclimatization takes about 90 days.

And until a dog is fully acclimatized, 15 degrees can make a big difference.

A dog adapted to 60 degree Anchorage temperatures can get in just as much trouble, and just as quickly, at 80 degrees as a Los Angeles dog acclimatized to 80 degrees can get into at 100.

Exercise produces heat

And the problem only compounds for dogs heading uphill into the mountains whether in Alaska or anywhere.. Going uphill, you may have noticed, requires your body to work harder. It is the same for dogs. The harder a mammal works, the more heat she, he or it produces.

Humans who build up excess heat sweat. We become big, evaporative cooling towers.

Dogs don’t sweat. It’s a big advantage in winter. They can go for a run and not ice up from sweat like you or me, or a horse.

Not sweating is a big disadvantage in the summer, however, so dogs pant. Panting is how they try to get rid of excess heat. If you’re out on a hike or jog with your dog in unusually warm Alaska weather, and the dog is panting up a storm, consider it a warning.

Your dog is overheating. Find him or her some shade and water or preferably both. If you can find a snowfield (unfortunately they are disappearing at record rates from the Front Range above Anchorage) or creek or mudhole, encourage your dog to roll and play in the cool moist.

It’s a nightmare to lose a dog to heat stroke. I have Alaska friends, several actually, to whom this has happened. It is almost as traumatic to nearly lose a dog to heat stroke,and I’ve been there.

Hoss and I were mountain running. He looked to be flagging. He’d slowed way down. He was panting like crazy, and he was using any bit of shade any time he could find it. But I was on a training plan and sticking to a schedule, and we were only about a mile from home.

Surely another mile couldn’t be a problem.

It was. Hoss collapsed about a half mile from the house. I ran home and got the truck, went back, loaded him, brought him home and threw him in a cool bath. It didn’t help. He started losing fluids out both ends.

I put him back in the truck and took him to pet emergency. He spent the night on IVs, and recovered, although not quite fully. He was extremely heat sensitive from then on. Anytime the heat got close to warm he had to be watched closely.

But we were lucky. Hoss lived a long happy live after that heat stroke, and I learned the importance of keeping a careful eye on dogs in the heat.

Other dogs, and the people who love them, have not been nearly so lucky.

It is incredibly easy to underestimate the danger of heat to dogs in Alaska. Don’t do it. Here’s a good guide on what to watch out for and what to do if Fido starts to overheat:




3 replies »

  1. Glad you wrote this , craig. I know someone who lost their dog this way last summer. Tragic. On an uphill hike just like you warned. I had no idea it was so common.

Leave a Reply