Running Commentary

As we are (I hope) coming to the end of a miserably hot summer I find that it beggars belief how many people continued to inflict heavy exercise and exposure to direct sun on their dogs without any apparent concern for their welfare. Most owners have a very poor grasp of how to fulfil their dog’s needs for stimulation and exercise and assume that “a good run” is ideal regardless of the weather or the obvious distress of their dog.

The numbers of people running with dogs and towing them behind bicycles has increased massively in recent years and with it consequential stress and probably injury to dogs. It hasn’t been helped by the heavy promotion of running and cycling and dog ownership as being beneficial (to humans) without a simultaneous education campaign about canine welfare and owner responsibilities.

No doubt the runners soak their own aches and pains in a hot bath or pay for a massage but do they ever consider how sore their dogs are after they have been pounding tarmac for an hour? What exactly possessed the owner whom I see in the park to force his limping, overweight (black) dog to run with him a few short weeks after having cruciate ligament surgery, itself damage exacerbated by her excess weight? But damaged ligaments and sore muscles are not the only danger to dogs that are made to run.

When the message that dogs can die in minutes in a hot car hasn’t got through to professionals, never mind the public, no wonder that owners give little consideration to heat stress in their companion dogs. It is not just people competing with their dogs in sports such as Cani-X, Bikejor and sled racing but individuals who decide that they can kill two birds with one stone by getting the “chore” of the dog walk and their own exercise completed in one go.

A new study investigating the body temperature of dogs competing in Cani-X is therefore a very important step towards establishing reliable guidelines as to the effect on canine welfare when dogs run.

This study and those that it cites confirm that there are many factors that affect whether a dog will suffer from heat stress, or worse, heatstroke, when obliged to run, including the weather conditions on the day. Heatstroke can be fatal condition and can occur after just six minutes of exercise in hot conditions. Owners have little or no understanding of how their dogs regulate heat as evidenced by the number of people shaving off their dog’s coat or swaddling their dogs in raincoats just because they don’t want them to get dirty. The warmer that the environment becomes, taking into account humidity and wind as well as “actual” temperature, the less efficient that the dog’s natural mechanisms of heat loss become.

There are other factors to consider in addition. Dogs measured after competing in Cani-X were significantly hotter than bitches and dark-coloured dogs developed significantly higher temperatures after running when compared to medium-coloured dogs, but not when compared to pale-coloured dogs. The dogs with the hottest post-running temperatures were thus more likely to be male and dark coated. Also, dogs that completed the course in the fastest times had higher post-running temperatures. This would suggest that a sprinter, such as a greyhound, would be hotter after running a typical race than might a Siberian Husky after running a long-distance sled course. Dogs running up a slope also had significantly higher temperatures after racing than those running on the flat.

The study suggested that, theoretically, all racing dogs would exhibit potentially dangerous high temperatures once the temperature reaches 22°C (taking into account the humidity and wind factors). The longer that the dog’s temperature remains high (approximately 3°C above the average resting temperature) the more likely the dog is to sustain long-term damage from heatstroke. In all of the races where dogs’ temperature was measured in the study, at least one dog developed a body temperature that would be considered to be at risk for developing heatstroke, with the highest recorded temperature being 4.5°C above the average resting temperature (bearing in mind that there is some individual variation). All of the dogs returned to a normal body temperature within 10–20 minutes of finishing their race. However, had the ambient temperatures been higher, this may have taken longer and owners also need to realise that dogs do not cool down immediately after stopping any more than people do. Running with a dog and then transporting it in a hot car and/or leaving it in a hot room may inhibit cooling considerably. It must also be noted that some of the dogs that had been raced when it was snowing still exhibited potentially dangerous high temperatures after running.

Owners who compete regularly with dogs are likely to monitor their water intake and regulate their diet with a great level of precision and understanding of their dogs’ requirements. Owners who haul their unfit dogs around the park are not. As the study’s author commented, “An unfit, poorly acclimatised, dark coated male dog may be at greater risk of heatstroke running in late autumn than a pale coated, female dog in regular training, running in the middle of summer”.

It beggars belief that owners with brachycephalic and achondroplastic dogs force them to run but it is easy to see that they do in any park on any day. Small dogs are also less able to regulate their temperature and are often those rugged up at every opportunity, including on warm, wet, muggy days when they too, are forced to run.

Dogs that are only taken out to run with owners have no opportunity to sniff and socialise and are often interpreted as being aggressive by other dogs as they run past in a desperate attempt to keep up with their owners. I have seen extremely fearful dogs quivering with stress as they weigh up whether to risk running past another dog or lose sight of their owner who, more often than not is either oblivious with headphones blasting muzak into their ears or running on whilst screaming at their dog to catch up.

It is amazing, especially this summer, that more dogs do not suffer from heatstroke as a consequence, although the long term damage to their social requirements and toll on their bodies is less apparent.

All owners need to be alert to the potential for heat stroke and over exertion in their dogs and to ensure that they neither drink too much or too little.

Many thanks to Emily J Hall and Anne Carter Pullen for making their research available and for the permission to link to the canine heatstroke website.

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