How Hot Is Too Hot? Heatstroke and Your Pets

Our dogs, cats, and many other pets enjoy the fresh air and sunshine as much as we do, especially during the warmer days of spring and summer. But even the healthiest pet can suffer from dehydration, sunburn, heat stress, and heatstroke if they spend too much time in the sun or overexert themselves during playtime or on a long walk (exertional heatstroke can even occur when the weather is cool.)  Heatstroke can also occur when outdoor humidity levels are high – regardless of the temperature – and in hot, humid, unventilated spaces indoors or outside (for example: your parked car, or a storage shed or doghouse.)  

Heatstroke is defined as an acute, progressive, life-threatening condition in which the body’s core temperature regulator (the hypothalamus in the brain) maintains its normal set-point but loses the ability to control the body’s temperature. A dog’s normal body temperature is between 100.5 and 102.5 F; during heatstroke, the body temperature rises to 106 degrees or more, and this can happen in just 10-15 minutes! The inability to adequately dissipate heat will affect nearly every system in the body, especially the brain, kidneys, liver and GI tract, and can lead to cellular damage, organ failure, and death. In fact, the mortality rate in dogs is nearly 50%, with most deaths occurring within the first 24 hours.  Cats, birds, and rabbits are less prone to heatstroke, but can easily succumb under the right conditions.  If your pet does suffer heatstroke, immediate action is required on your part!

So how do you know if your pet is overheating, and what should you do?  Signs of heatstroke include the following:

  • Rapid or heavy panting (your pet’s attempt to cool itself) and/or difficulty breathing.
  • Birds too will pant heavily, and will also hold their wings out from their bodies, and rock back & forth on their perch.
  • Heavy drooling, thick or “ropy” saliva
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea (either may be bloody)
  • Bright red mucous membranes (tongue and gums)
  • Color of mucous membranes can progress to pale or bluish as the animal’s condition worsens
  • Staggering or unsteady gait
  • Excessive thirst
  • Lethargy/listlessness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures or collapse
Time is of the essence in treating an animal that is showing any signs of heatstroke; it is essential that you get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible (within 90 minutes) but it is just as important that you begin cooling measures at home – in fact, it may improve your pet’s chances of survival by up to 47%!
  • First, get the animal out of the sun: move indoors if possible, or to a shaded area outdoors. Place the animal in front of a fan if you have one handy.
  • Do NOT immerse the pet in cold water, ice water, or apply ice packs to the body – this will decrease his temperature too quickly, and can actually drive more heat into the body’s core, causing further problems.
  • Gradually lower the animal’s body temperature by placing lukewarm, wet towels over the back of his neck, in the armpits, and in the groin area; you can also wipe lukewarm water on the ear flaps and paws.
  • A garden hose may be used to spray water on the pet so long as the water is not cold.
  • If possible, take your pet’s rectal temperature while you are cooling him off; you should not attempt further cooling efforts once the pet’s temperature is reduced to 103 degrees.
  • Call your veterinarian’s office or the nearest animal emergency center to alert the staff that you are on your way with a suspected heatstroke patient, and then get to the clinic asap; drive with your car windows open or, ideally, with your vehicle’s air-conditioning on and directed at the pet.
  • Do not keep dampened towels or sheets on the animal during transport – this will actually impede further cooling of the body.
  • Please note, even if your pet seems to recover after you have cooled him off, it is still essential that you have him seen by a veterinarian; the potentially catastrophic effects of heatstroke may take hours or days to reveal themselves, and your pet may require blood tests, IV fluids, antibiotics, and other supportive care in order to recover.

Of course, the best thing to do is avoid heatstroke altogether! You can help your pet do this by taking some common-sense precautions, and by being aware of factors that may predispose an animal to heatstroke. ANY animal can overheat under the right conditions, but animals most at risk for overheating are the youngsters (under 6 months) and seniors; overweight pets; animals with pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease or laryngeal paralysis; animals taking medications such as diuretics (ie., Furosemide/Lasix or Spironolactone,) Beta-blockers (ie., Atenolol, Propranolol, or Metoprolol,) or tranquilizers such as acepromazine or chlorpromazine; and short-muzzled (brachycephalic) breeds such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, Pekingese, and Persian cats, who are unable to cool air when they breathe as efficiently as longer-muzzled animals. Also at increased risk are pets with thick or long hair, or darker-colored fur. Pets may also be at increased risk when the weather has taken a sudden turn to hotter temperatures or higher humidity (as it often does in Nebraska!) or when they have recently moved to an area with a different climate: acclimation to hotter and/or more humid weather is partially complete within 10-20 days, but it can take up to two months for animals to fully adjust to warm temperatures. Finally, an animal that has suffered heat stroke once and survived may sustain permanent brain damage, potentially making that animal more susceptible to future hyperthermic episodes.

To help protect your pets from the heat, here is what you need to do:

  • Exercise pets during the coolest parts of the day, usually the early morning and later evening.
  • Keep pets from overheating indoors or out with a cooling body wrap, vest, collar or bandana, or kennel/floor mat (such as the Keep Cool Mat, the Kool Collar, or the Cooling Bandana, or a similar product.)
  • Put off trips to the dog park until the weather is cooler.
  • Keep them out of the sun! Walk dogs on shaded paths, and be sure to provide shady areas in your yard (trees and tarps are ideal because they allow air flow, whereas a doghouse can actually trap heat inside.) Close drapes & blinds to keep the sun out of your home during peak hours, and make sure cages for birds or “pocket pets” are out of any sunlight that may stream through your windows.
  • Turn on the air conditioning in your home.
  • Make sure that fresh, clean water is available at all times, in a sturdy bowl that won’t tip over easily. Many animals also enjoy a few ice cubes in their water bowl – it keeps the water cooler, and they can lick the cubes as they melt. Always carry water for you AND your pet on walks!
  • For caged pets such as rabbits, set up a circulating fan to provide a breeze (but make sure it doesn’t blow directly on the animal all day, and make sure bunny can’t reach the cord to chew on it.)
  • Brush out excess fur, or have your pet’s coat trimmed to a shorter length; however, don’t shave them completely, because the hair coat can actually keep your pet cooler, and provides protection from sunburn.
  • Never leave your pet unattended in a parked carNEVER. Not even if you think you will only be gone “just a minute.” Not even with the air conditioning running (the a/c could fail, or your engine could fail.) Not even with the windows cracked (it doesn’t help.) Not even if you’ve parked in the shade (this offers little protection on a hot day, and shade moves as the sun moves.)  The temperature rises shockingly fast inside a vehicle, even when the temperature outside is only 70 degrees. When it’s a lovely 70 degrees outside, the inside of your car may be as much as 20 degrees hotter within minutes.  On an 85 degree day, it only takes 10 minutes for the inside of your car to reach 104 degrees, and within 30 minutes, the temperature can skyrocket to 120 degrees. When it’s 95 degrees outside, it will be 136degrees inside your car in less than an hour!
  • When the weather heats up, leave your pets at home! They’ll be safer and happier, and eager to greet you when you walk through the door.

Remember, heatstroke doesn’t just happen to pets left in hot cars: heatstroke can happen even in your own home or backyard! Take precautions, be vigilant, and have a safe and happy summer!

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