A few weeks ago in a Commonwealth not very far away a situation arose in my life that no dog-sitter ever wants to face. It’s the most terrifying thing that could happen to any type of caretaker – be it a dog walker, a teacher, a nanny, or a nurse. It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of (at least mine). The potential pitfall that looms ever present in the back of one’s mind (okay maybe just mine). It keeps you on your proverbial toes and keeps insurance companies in business. What is this mysterious devil you may ask? Well, a few weeks ago I nearly lost a dog. Not in the literal sense – he did not run away — but far worse! An English Bulldog under my care had a massive heat stroke and nearly died. The story contained herein is a cautionary tale (names have been changed in the interest of client anonymity). I will share it, despite it’s somewhat defamatory effect on my professional reputation, in the hopes that my story will educate other owners or sitters of any Brachycephalic breed (Brachycephalic is a big word for a dog with a pushed in nose), though English Bulldogs are the most susceptible to heat stroke and they are plagued with more breathing issues than any other type of canine (I’ve done a lot of research since said “incident”). Let’s start at the beginning of this story so that we can see how seemingly small, potentially inconsequential factors created the perfect storm that caused this dog to overheat and suffer a cardiac arrest. Then, we can take what we have learned and talk about prevention.
I picked Roscoe up in Boston on a Friday, a few days into a suppressing heat wave that was blanketing Boston and most of Massachusetts. He hopped into my car giddily and even with the AC blasting proceeded to pant heavily the entire ride back to Swampscott. This heavy panting lasted throughout the weekend. In the interest of full disclosure I will let it be known that I do not have central air conditioning. I have a couple of window AC units, one of which is quite large and actually sits on the ground with the exhaust pipe running out the window. I also have a couple of large fans, one of which is industrial strength; it’s so powerful that the force with which it blows frequently causes it to flip over backwards. Despite these cooling methods (which would seem somewhat rudimentary when compared to central air), the temperatures in a heat wave, even inside, can still reach uncomfortable levels. Roscoe did spend most of the weekend inside in front of the fans. He would quickly go outside into my fenced yard to potty and then come right back in without fuss or prodding. On Sunday, despite his protestations, I hosed him down outside to help cool him down (he didn’t seem to like that but I thought it would be in his best interest and make him more comfortable in the long run). I contemplated taking him for a walk in the evening but based on his heavy breathing decided against it. My point being – we laid very, very low that weekend.
On Monday I brought all the dogs in my care to my heavily air conditioned office which is cooler than my house. Dingo and Jack, another boarder, lazed about comfortably but Roscoe continued to pant heavily, seemingly struggling to breathe. At this point however, I still justified Roscoe’s labored breathing as a fact of life for this Brachycephalic breed. I have watched other English Bulldogs in the past, and even watched Roscoe last summer and from what I have witnessed, these dogs struggle to breathe on the best of days. The constant panting, snorting, and snoring is commonplace for them and I figured this was just another day in the life of an English Bulldog.
Around mid-day on Monday, Roscoe, who had not been prone to accidents in the past, peed and pooped in my office. I reasoned that this was his way of telling me that he desperately wanted to go outside and I will admit I felt somewhat guilty for his lack of activity and stimulation the past couple days. Worried that walking to the shaded dog park down the street from my office would be too much for Roscoe, I decided to pack all the dogs up in my car and drive instead. Upon my arrival, Dingo and Jack were immediately eager to play fetch and run about. I threw the ball for them while Roscoe traipsed behind me at a leisurely pace. After about five minutes at the park I noticed that Roscoe’s breathing became even more labored than usual. He then started vomiting, a little at first and then more and more frequently and violently to the point where there were thick streams of mucous emanating from his jowls. It was at about this point that I noticed his tongue had turned from a healthy pinkish red to a deep blue/purple. More than the vomiting or labored breathing, when I saw Roscoe’s tongue I knew he was in trouble. I want to stress that this all occurred in a matter of minutes. I was absolutely astonished at how quickly Roscoe went from walking by my side to no longer able to walk and barely able to stand. I dropped my Chuck-It (you will be happy to know it was still there when I went back for it hours later), with adrenaline pumping I swooped Roscoe up like he was a Chihuahua and not the 40lb linebacker that he is. I ran back to the car with Dingo and Jack following suit.
Roscoe continued to vomit relentlessly in the car on the way back to the office, in the hallway and elevator of the building, and then in the office itself. After he refused my desperate attempts to get him to drink I began pouring cool water over him to lower his body temperature. Still, he showed no sign of improvement. It was at this point that I knew I had to get him to a veterinary hospital fast. I emailed his owners in Singapore – ‘I’m worried about Roscoe. Call me as soon as you can.’ And then I raced out the door with a very sick dog in my arms.
Despite jacking up the air conditioning in the car, Roscoe’s symptoms were not abating. He continued to vomit and also began shaking uncontrollably. I was truly worried that he might stop breathing in the car on the way to the hospital. I called the owners emergency contacts, his parents in San Francisco, and alerted them to the situation. I also called ahead to Angell Memorial Veterinary Hospital in Jamaica Plain to let them know we were on the way.
Once we arrived at Angel the staff rushed him back into the emergency treatment room and I assumed since he was still breathing upon arrival that they would give him subcutaneous fluids and cool his body temperature and he would be okay. A few minutes later a woman dressed in scrubs rushed out from the back room and approached me. I could see the concern in her eyes before she spoke.
“Roscoe is going into cardiac arrest,” she said. “Do we have permission to give him CPR?”
I’m a little surprised that they even have to ask this question but clearly my answer was an adamant, “YES! Do whatever you have to do to save him!”
I’m happy to report that this story does have a happy ending. A few minutes later the same woman came back and told me that they had stabilized Roscoe, his heart was beating again, and he was recovering in a temperature controlled incubator that they were flooding with pure oxygen. I felt like I had been holding my breath for the past hour and I could finally inhale an exhausted sigh of relief. The doctor explained to me that Roscoe was not out of the proverbial woods just yet. There are complications that can arise after a dog has gone into heat stroke – things like organ failure, brain damage, chest infections and/or pneumonia from vomiting – but the good news was that he was stabilized, and breathing well again. I felt at ease knowing that Roscoe was in good hands and would be receiving the best possible care imaginable in the next few days.
The silver lining in my unforgettable tale of woe is that I did (and still do!) have pet sitters insurance which I’m happy to report picked up the entire $2,200 tab for the Emergency room visit and two days of care. I can not stress enough the importance of hiring adequately insured dog walkers/boarders and/or if you are employed in either of the previously aforementioned professions I would say it is imperative that you purchase insurance – for your own sake and that of your client’s.
Roscoe was released in good standing after a couple days. At my suggestion and his owners approval, he was cared for until their return by my friend and fellow dog boarder, Sam Barker of Barker Brothers Boarding. Sam is a wildlife expert and teaches Pet Tech First Aid classes; as such, I felt more comfortable entrusting Roscoe upon discharge to her care due to her knowledge of animal health and her proximity to Angel Memorial. I can’t thank Sam enough for her assistance during this crisis and then immediately following it.
Roscoe’s discharge instructions were that he was to be kept inside and mostly immobile during the day. Angel Memorial also stated that Roscoe suffers from “Brachycephalic Syndrome”, which is an airway obstruction due to the shape and makeup of a dog’s pallet and septum. They suggested that Roscoe’s owner schedule a consultation with a surgeon upon their return.
Roscoe’s owners, and the owners parents in San Francisco with whom I was in touch frequently were very appreciative that I got Roscoe to the hospital in time to save his life. They have thanked me for my care and communication before, during and after the incident. This, of course, makes navigating a traumatic incident such as this much easier. However, due to my perfectionist nature I can’t help but wonder what I could have done differently to prevent this from happening all together. Now that I know more about heat stroke in dogs, I know that I will refuse to board any Brachycephalic breed in the summer until I have central air installed in my home. I would also severely restrict their activity and any outdoor time in the summer; just two to three minutes outside in the shade can be deadly for these dogs (see links below).
When doing research post emergency I came across a few enlightening sites and personal stories that deal with preventative measures, warning signs, and how to treat a dog after it has gone into heat stroke::
A somewhat controversial, but insightful blog post by an Emergency Room Vet about English Bulldogs: emergivet.blogspot.com/2010/08/ncpe-bulldogs-beware.html.
In closing, I will take full responsibility for underestimating Roscoe’s ability to tolerate the heat. Even though we were only outside for five or ten minutes and we were in the shade, that was two to eight minutes too long. Like most things in my life, I had to learn this particular lesson the hard way. If you own a Brachy and have read this far, hopefully my story will prevent you from learning the hard way too. When it comes to this fragile breed, exercise caution and when in doubt, don’t bring them out!