Keep Your Cool
Activity produces extra heat within our bodies. Every cell is like a tiny engine, roaring away. The more you gun those little engines, the more heat you need to "give away" to the environment. Otherwise, you'll get burned by your own motor.
There are 4 ways warm-blooded creatures shed heat. One is by simply radiating heat to the environment. It's only an option when the surrounding air is cooler than body temperature, so after 100 degrees, don't expect help here. Also, the more fur, the more insulation against radiation loss.
The second is by conduction, which means you give the heat away through touch-transfer. Laying in water or on tile will suck away body heat into the cooler material. That's why the spot on the couch where your dog was laying feels warm.
Convection is the cooling method we utilize by turning on a fan. The wind blows over our warm skin and "scrapes away" the surface heat. Taking a dip in the lake also convects heat from your skin to the water. Fur resists convection by trapping water or air close to the skin and warming it, creating a "buffer" layer like a wet suit.
Evaporation is also a very effective coolant. When we sweat, the moisture we put on the surface of our skin takes heat with it as it evaporates off. In addition, lungs and mucus membranes humidify every
breath-- when you breathe on a piece of glass, you can see the warm moisture momentarily. For dogs, breathing out
evaporated heat is their main cooler. They will pant rapidly even
when they don't need oxygen/aren't tired. Evaporation also occurs on the surface of
their tongue and paws. Dogs with short noses and tongues are at a disadvantage.
Now that you know the mechanics, imagine you are out jogging with your dog (because you're that hip) on a warm California morning. You are sweating, but your running speed creates a breeze that cools you (convection and evaporation). Eventually, you notice that your dog is panting like a machine gun and appears exhausted. His belly feels warm to the touch but you know that a dog's temperature is normally 2-3 degrees warmer than a human's. You whip out your half-empty Nalgene bottle and offer him water but he seems disinterested. At this point you should--
A. Wait in the shade until the dog's panting slows and he has accepted some water
B. Bathe the dog's underbelly and paws with the remaining water and continue
C. Fan the dog with a piece of cardboard while you walk slowly towards home-- and the AC
Life is full of these sorts of dilemmas, where you must pick the best of several possible solutions. In the case of having limited water, I would make stopping activity (heat production) and rapid cooling a first priority. Get out of the sun and have the dog lay on the coolest surface available to conduct heat off, fan him for convection, and continue to offer water to drink. After the dog has recovered, continue with great caution. If the dog is already vomiting, staggering, and disoriented, you have a serious heat emergency that will cause further brain and organ damage every minute the dog remains hot. Flag down a car, obtain ice and/or water to begin emergency cooling, and transport the dog to a vet . Don't give anything by mouth to a dog that has vomited, is seizing, or is hyperventilating.
Let's continue our journey. Concerned that your dog may be overheated, you lead him gently towards:
A. The nearest brackish ditch, and encourage him to splash in it, neck-deep, for a few minutes.
B. A hose next to the nearest house, wet him down quickly and move on before someone sees you
C. The nearest puddle, where you scoop up water in a cast-off Starbucks cup and pour it directly on his head and back
C will do very little good. Option B is great, provided you can do it discreetly or with permission. However, don't just briefly splash the dog: douse him extensively for a minute or two. There is little risk of over-cooling a large dog, but in the case of people or small, short-haired dogs, stop frequently and assess whether the subject is getting too cold. Immersion in still water is a slow but effective way to cool. If the water is not deep enough to cover most of the dog, focus water on areas of skin, not fur. Flick water up on the belly, groin and inside of the legs. If he has stand-up ears, brush some moisture there, too, avoiding flooding the ear canal.
When your strategy involves small amounts of water on the underbelly for direct evaporation, keep in mind that warm water works better than cold for this purpose. Giving your dog icy-cold water to drink is also not necessary. It will be absorbed and put to use faster if it is room-temperature.
Hydration begins the day before exercise. If your dog isn't much of a drinker, try flavoring the water or floating treats in it. Soak the dog's kibble in extra water for a flavored stew.
Shaving a long-haired dog in summer is of disputed value as it has some detrimental effects on appearance. In any case, keeping a furry dog brushed out of the soft undercoat will let more air or water circulate close to the skin for convection.
Now that you know how heat is shed, you can evaluate whether your dog-- given the activity level you expect-- should have a cooling vest, and which type. Don't listen to what manufacturers say about why their product is the best. For instance, most water vests are incorrectly advertised as cooling via evaporation and equated with human sweating. Not quite. The dog's heat first has to conduct to the wet vest through contact. The vest then cools itself to clamminess by convection and evaporation.
"What does it matter?" you exclaim. "It's all heat lost, one way or another!" It matters because, certain areas of most dogs are highly resistant to the mechanism of conduction. The furry dog in the photo to the left, with a vest on its back, is getting very little benefit. It is a vest cut for fashion, not efficiency. Place your hand on your dog's side/back. Cool? Now place your hand on your dog's belly. Is there a difference in the amount of heat conducted to your hand? Put the heat-absorbing material where the heat is, duh. Trying to conduct heat through a fur barrier is dumb. It won't hurt the dog to wear this vest and there will be insulation benefit in temperatures over 100 degrees. But it's not the most efficient for removing heat the dog itself generates through exercise. However, a short-haired dog like the one on the right can conduct easily to this vest.
On the right is a sensibly-designed cooling vest. It is centered over the least-furry area of the dog, where conduction occurs most efficiently. There's not a bunch of pretty, excess fabric to mat down the dog's fur and stifle convection. This is a working-quality cooling vest.
Wherever they are placed, vests are just a fancy piece of material to hold some sort of heat-absorbing liquid. This coolant may be water or a magical "phase-change material" or "state of the art bio-based cooling packs". Wow... water sounds so mundane and the others so cutting-edge and neat-o. Here's an industry secret.... tap-water is a bio-based phase-change material too! You can refer to the ice in your drink as "solid-state dihydrogen monoxide" (H2O) if you'd like.
Simply put, anything touching the dog, that is cooler than the dog, will conduct heat away from the dog...most efficiently, of course, where there is not an insulating barrier of fur. The various coolants differ in the temperature at which they become solid, liquid or gas, and vary slightly in conductivity. In the case of frozen water, it may get a little too cold and burn or numb the skin. Your criteria for selecting a coolant can center on how safe it is in the event it is devoured by a curious dog or child. Cooling mats use these same principles.
What about fans and misters? For short-haired dogs, yes. The water of the mister can reach the skin and evaporate from there. A fan can convect heat away from the skin. For furrier dogs, the fan should be low, targeting the less-insulated belly. Misting from above will tend to settle on long fur, where evaporation is not going to be very useful. In any case, only use misters where there is plenty of dry air circulation. Creating excess humidity (a tropical effect) in a stuffy kennel will inhibit the dog's own evaporation efforts.