Whenever the weather is unseasonably warm, my Facebook news feed fills up with what can only be called rants about “stupid” people leaving their dogs in hot cars, or walking them in the heat of the day and other tales of woe, including the death of dogs from heat stroke. The last few days have been no exception.
To counteract the slightly hysterical, it-would-never-happen-to-me nature of these posts, I thought I would share my experience because actually, if you don’t know the warning signs, or realise that heat stroke can be fatal, then it can catch anybody out.
Last summer, I spent a week in Pembrokeshire with my kids, my friend, Anna, and her daughter. We were blessed with a few warm, sunny days and decided to spend them on the beach to make the most of the unexpected weather. On this particular day we chose our favourite place, Broadhaven, part of the huge Stackpole Estate owned by the National Trust.
We loaded the car up with the stove, a big cooler box of food, lots of water, swimming gear and beach mats. Everyone was looking forward to some fun at the end of the school year.
As we were going to carry so much heavy gear, we decided to park at the top of the cliff and take the short but steep flight of steps down to the sand, rather than do the mile-long walk from the church, through the lily pools. The sky was cloudless and the temperature a pleasant 20ºC.
Once we’d made our way down we didn’t walk far before setting up camp underneath the dunes on an empty patch of sand. Normally, we would choose the other side of the beach with its little shady nooks in among the rocks but it’s a wide bay and we had too much stuff to haul all the way over to the other side.
I fired up the camping stove and we were soon enjoying strips of beef teriyaki and couscous, cucumber and watermelon, to the envy of all the other holiday makers sitting nearby.
Lunch over, we headed down to the waves, the kids trying to push one another in and Callum, my cross breed swimming after tennis balls, barking at Anna excitedly to throw him another one. Penny the Podengo has to stay on the lead otherwise she’ll vanish all day hunting rabbits. She followed reluctantly and lingered on the edge not wanting to get her feet wet, fully living up to her reputation as a bit of a princess.
And so the afternoon wore on. The kids played football and tennis, went rock climbing and jumped the waves. Anna and I chatted and read our books. Penny curled up next to me and went to sleep, Callum alternated between staying with the kids when they played in the sea and sitting with us. If he was bored of that, he sniffed out other peoples’ picnics and raided them!
It was around 4 o’clock when I began to realise something was wrong with Callum. He was sitting with me panting excessively and drooling.
“Callum’s too hot,” I said to Joe, my eldest, who was 14 at the time.
He jumped up, always eager to help with the dogs, attached Callum’s lead and jogged him down to the sea. I was alarmed to see Callum staggering slightly and reluctant to go with him. In an instant, my mind recalled all those social media posts I’d seen about heat stroke and how putting dogs in very cold water is the wrong thing to do. I realised then what was wrong with him and jumped up panicked.
“Come back, Joe!” I called but he didn’t hear me, my voice floating away uselessly in the wind.
I walked after him, cursing my inability to run after a recent knee operation, but was too late to stop him submerging Callum in the sea. As I reached them the poor dog was standing on the sand shaking violently and as I looked more closely I could see his eyes were blinking rapidly. Fear started to seep in now…
“Joe, I think Callum has heat stroke. Putting him in the sea won’t help. We need to get him out of the sun now.”
“Ok. I was only trying to help,” he said.
“Of course you were. You didn’t realise,” I replied in a conciliatory tone.
We returned slowly to our beach towels, Callum’s condition worsening by the minute and I said to Anna as calmly as I could: “There is something very wrong with Callum and I think it’s heat stroke. We need to go home now.”
In five minutes we’d packed up and were heading towards the car. The kids were anxious and I did my best to tell them he would be fine once I’d got him somewhere cooler. The truth was, I didn’t know how quickly he would recover; I’ve watched my pale-skinned, blonde husband struggle with heat stroke several times and I know how serious it is.
“You’re going to have to carry him up the cliff Joe. He’s too heavy for me with my sore knee,” I said to Joe.
“I can manage,” he said, picking Callum up.
I went ahead of him, anxious to get to the car, turn on the air conditioning and cool it down. Loaded up with bags, I could hear Joe struggling to carry Callum up the steep steps but couldn’t help him.
Finally, we made it to the top and Joe sat on the shady bank while I cooled down the car and we loaded everything in.
I drove home, asking Joe how Callum was at regular intervals.
“He’s not shaking anymore. He’s put his head on my lap and I’m giving him a stroke,” he said.
“Keep an eye on him and tell me if he’s sick, as we’ll have to take him straight to the vet,” I said.
After half an hour, we were home and Callum walked normally, if a little slowly into the house and spent the rest of the evening asleep, with me monitoring him closely and giving him a small meal and a drink.
In the morning he scoffed his breakfast and ran outside to bark at the birds with Penny. I knew then that he was none the worse for his experience but if we’d stayed on the beach much longer I could be telling you a very different tale.
I’ve never told anyone this before because I still feel very guilty over what happened. As someone who’s always lived with a dog, I really should have known better but that very fact had made me dangerously complacent. It’s been a hard lesson but never again will I let my dog run around in the sun for too long.