Among the many urban legends that persist, is that putting ice cubes in a dog’s water is dangerous. A few years ago, it was even claimed that this had led to the death of dogs. The joy of social media.
Firstly, ice cubes are perfectly safe. But in this post, I’ll break down the story and the elements of truth that have evolved to make a myth.
Table of contents
What is the claim being made?
Supposedly, the post is reporting the death of an “animal clients” dog from heat-stroke. The author claims that this is because the owner gave the dog ice-cubes in their water to try and cool them down.
They go on to claim that this is dangerous because the “canine anterior hypothalamus is triggered to warm up the body because it recognises something icy cold has been absorbed, and subsequently the bodily temperature rises to compensate for this”. In other words, by cooling the dog’s insides down, you are inducing them to increase their core temperature, therefore triggering heat stroke.
So, is ice water bad for dogs?
Basically, no. While it is theoretically the case that eating cold things can warm you up, that’s only to maintain your core temperature. If the dog is already uncomfortably warm, their cooling systems are already working to the max. By cooling them down (very slightly!) with ice-cubes, you’re actually helping them.
But there is a grain of truth in it. If you force-fed your dog a lot of ice, then they might indeed initiate a shivering response, raising their core temperature. Even then, their temperature will probably stabilise at about normal, and I’d be more worried about overcooling them leading to hypothermic shock!
Theoretically, it could also lead to constriction of the blood vessels in the tongue, reducing heat loss slightly. But, of course, the ice melts quickly and most of the heat loss is via warm air from the lungs, so this isn’t likely to be significant.
Bottom line – a few ice cubes in their drinking water isn’t going to trigger the out of control rise in temperature that this post claims. There is NO evidence that giving a dog ice cubes in hot weather increases their risk of heat stroke.
But what about the advice that hot drinks help cool you down?
Different species, different physiology!
Unlike dogs, humans can sweat to cool down – and drinking a warm liquid helps to trigger peripheral temperature sensors in the mouth and throat (not the central ones in the hypothalamus that monitor core temperature), increasing the sweating rate across the skin.
As we sweat more, we tend to cool down a little bit faster than we otherwise would. However, this does NOT involve altering our core temperature, it just makes us more comfortable.
Why is the post so believable?
The author has been very clever. They have done five classical tricks to convince you that it’s real:
1) They’ve appealed to authority – they’ve claimed that this is an announcement being shared from a vet.
2) They raise an imminent threat to your dog – that they might die. As soon as immediate danger is perceived by the brain, it becomes harder to logically analyse information, meaning that by claiming severe consequences, it becomes harder to spot any mistakes.
3) They’ve used long and complicated words and convoluted arguments to make it sound “sciencey” – for example, “anterior hypothalamus” without explaining them.
4) There is a grain of truth in it! Much of their argument is theoretically possible; although, as far as we know, does not happen in practice. Additionally, they have tied it into the (real) fact that to cool an already overheated dog off, we do recommend avoiding icy cold water (because it triggers blood vessel constriction, and can lead to hypothermic shock if you cool them too far).
How can I spot this as “fake news”?
There are a number of key giveaways that this isn’t necessarily a reliable source of information.
1) The claim that its “From a vet on Facebook”. If so, why haven’t they shared that vet’s original post? Why haven’t they named the vet, so it can be checked? If you don’t know where news is coming from – doubt it.
2) Some odd use of words – “I’m with animal clients”. What other kind would a vet have? Also, “bodily temperature” is not a normal phrase – we’d normally use “body temperature”.
3) Where did it come from? Again, if this really was veterinary advice, wouldn’t it be on that vet’s practice Facebook page? Why is it being spread by individuals?
Note that this doesn’t mean a post is definitely untrue – this one has sparked debate on one of the biggest vet forums in the UK! But it does mean you should tread carefully and look for more information before believing it.
OK, so what is heatstroke?
Heatstroke occurs when the animal is unable to lose heat faster than it’s being generated or absorbed. Dogs are at particular risk because their physiology is adapted to keep warm, not cool. So, for example, they cannot lose significant amounts of heat by sweating, and must pant.
Heatstroke may occur due to being trapped in a hot space and unable to escape – e.g. a car, greenhouse or conservatory – or from exercising too vigorously in hot weather. In either case, the symptoms are the same; excessive panting, drooling, dark tongue, weakness, vomiting, collapse and ultimately abnormal bleeding, seizures and death. Dogs really do die in hot weather, it’s far more common than most people think.
What should I do if I suspect my dog has heatstroke?
Get them into the shade, offer them water, pour cool (but best to avoid ice-cold) water over them, and call the closest vet immediately.
So is ice 100% safe for dogs?
No – there have been a few isolated reports of other complications (thanks Susan Carlton!). Large lumps of ice can seem like nice things to chew on, and fractured teeth can occasionally result. There have also been a very few reports of more serious problems, especially around temporary breathing difficulties. These are probably due to the dog inhaling a large lump of ice. Until it melts (which it will do but it’s really scary at the time!) it can block the airway.
In fact, until a message this afternoon, I’d never heard of it happening in “real life”, so I very much doubt that it’s a common risk. That said, if you’ve got a pet who has problems with their larynx, or tends to “inhale” food and drink, making sure you either avoid ice, or only use small cubes, is probably the best bet.
But heat stroke? Shouldn’t be an issue!