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Heat stroke in pets: causes, symptoms, and treatment

Border collie on a rock suffering from heat stroke
© Shutterstock

Heat exhaustion occurs as a result of exposure to a humid or hot environment, especially if there is a lack of adequate ventilation or air flow. It can be very dangerous for our furry friends. Here is how to help your pet deal with heatwaves.

By Justine Seraphin

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:44

Heat exhaustion can quickly worsen if an individual has no access to shade, water, or is exercising excessively, in which case it can rapidly lead to heatstroke, which can be fatal.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia in which the body temperature is elevated above its normal range. Generally speaking, a dog’s body temperature is too high from 39.2 degrees Celsius and upwards. High temperatures such as the ones we experience during the summer months are a major precursor to heatstroke, as it brings pets' body temperatures so high that they are no longer able to lose heat.

Heatstroke is a life threatening condition which can cause heat injuries to major tissues and internal organs, sometimes to the point where they stop functioning. Multiple organ failure can rapidly lead to death if not treated urgently.

Why our pets are more vulnerable to heatstroke

While anyone can suffer heatstroke, many pet owners are unaware that our dogs and cats are particularly susceptible.

Unlike people, dogs cannot sweat out their excess body heat. While they do have a few sweat glands under their paws and around their noses, these are not enough to regulate their body temperatures effectively. Instead, dogs cool themselves by panting – but this doesn’t always stop them from over-heating.

Cats do not sweat either, and are descendants of desert wildcats, which is why they usually don’t drink much water. In warm weather, this can lead to dehydration, and therefore heatstroke, as well.

And let’s not forget that both cats and dogs (or most of them at least), have fur coats! If you’re hot in this weather, imagine how they feel!

Predisposing factors to heatstroke

Every animal is at risk of heatstroke; however, some are predisposed to the condition.

Indeed, dogs or cats with especially thick or long coats will suffer from the heat more easily. If your animal has a coat that can be shorn/trimmed down, you should go ahead and relieve her of an excess layer. However, you should never completely shave an animal’s coat, as their coats are an aid in regulating their body temperatures.

Heat wave tip to keep your dog cool

Just like in humans, the young and old are the most vulnerable. You will need to be extra vigilant with puppies or kittens and senior cats or dogs during the heatwave.

Brachycephalic (short-snouted) dogs and cats are also more likely to suffer from heatstroke, due to their breathing difficulties. These include French Bulldogs, English Bulldogs, Boxers, Pugs, Persians, Himalayans, and Exotic Shorthairs, to name a few.

Many medical conditions can also predispose an animal to heatstroke, including obesity, respiratory, cardiovascular, or neurological diseases.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke

In order to keep your pet safe throughout the summer, ensure you are aware of the signs of heatstroke. It is, however, best to intervene even earlier, when you notice the signs of heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion

  • Reddening skin inside ears
  • Rapid panting
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea and vomiting

Heat stroke

  • Rapid panting
  • Breathing distress
  • Rapid heartrate
  • Drooling, salivating
  • Bright red tongue
  • Red or pale gums
  • Thick, sticky saliva
  • Glazed eyes
  • Agitation, restlessness (cats may pace)
  • Depression, lethargy, weakness
  • Mental confusion, delirium
  • Dizziness, lack of coordination
  • Fever
  • Vomiting – sometimes with blood
  • Diarrhoea
  • Little to no urine production
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness/collapse
  • Shock
  • Coma

What to do if your animal is suffering from heatstroke:

If you recognise any of the above symptoms, you should first administer emergency treatment yourself, but nonetheless, your pet will need veterinary attention.

1.     Immediately move your pet to a cooler area: indoors where there is air conditioning or a fan
2.     Place your pet on a wet towel
3.     Apply tepid/cool water (not cold water) onto your dog’s fur and skin, especially the neck, armpits, between the legs, the ears, and the paws
4.     If he’s conscious you can give him cool water (not cold water). Don’t force it though, as it could end up in his lungs.
5.     Call the vet in advance so they can prepare for you imminent arrival.

What does a vet do?

Heatstroke is a life threatening condition which can have long-term effects on your pet, even if the damage doesn’t show straight away. You should always bring your pet for veterinary attentention if she has suffered heatstroke, even if you’ve been able to calm the symptoms.

The vet will probably start by re-hydrating your pet by putting her on a drip. The vet may also administer cooling treatments such as an enema, and will be able to provide supplemental oxygen or medication as needed.

Your vet will also perform a blood test to check for potential blood clotting or abnormal organ function, and will be able to monitor your pet’s health long-term, following the incident.

How to prevent heatstroke

The best way to treat heatstroke is, of course, to prevent it! On hot days when temperatures start soaring above 30 degrees, special precautions must always be taken to avoid the worst.

1.     Limit exercise
2.     Walk your dog/cat early morning and late evening when temperatures are cooler, and avoid asphalt or concrete.
3.     Give your dog/cat a trim (but never shave the coat – this could make things worse!)
4.     Provide free access to plenty of drinking water. You can also put ice cubes in their water bowl to keep it cool!
5.    Let your dog play in the pool or with sprinklers
6.     Wet your dog/cat down regularly with a damp towel or purchase a cooling vest for them
7.     Give your dog/cat ice cubes or frozen treats
8.     Keep your pet inside if you have air conditioning or a fan. If your home is well insulated and the temperature outside is warmer than inside, it is recommended to keep windows and blinds closed to keep the fresh inside.

-      Leave your dog or cat in direct sunlight without shade or water
-      Leave your dog or cat inside a parked car (the temperature inside a hot car can rise to twice the outside temperature in a matter of minutes).
-      Put a muzzle on your dog (which can stop them from panting effectively)
-     Give your dog or cat ice cubes or cold water/ice water if he is suffering from heat stroke: the sudden drop in temperature could lead to shock

  The 7 seconds rule to check the heat of the pavement 
Asphalt Temperature©Wamiz
What the temperature on the pavement can do to your dog's paws
Temperature is hot enough to cook an egg, image your dog's paws...©Wamiz

This summer is particularly hot and we must take care of those around us who are most vulnerable. Our pets love us more than anything and would do anything for us - let's make sure we do the same for them.

Great tips to prevent your dog from heat stroke©Wamiz