Heatstroke (Hyperthermia)

Summer doesn’t officially start until June 21st but here in Austin, summer seems to take up half the calendar year. With the rising temperatures upon us we need to take extra care to protect our beloved pets from heat related emergencies.

Cats and dogs are not as proficient at cooling themselves as humans are. Apart from not being able to sweat, they wear fur coats year round that also keep them warmer. Dogs are much more likely to suffer from heatstroke though it is possible for a cat to succumb as well.

If caught early, mild heat stroke can be treated and pets can recover relatively quickly. If their body temperature gets too high, it can be deadly.

Pets keep their bodies warmer than we do with an average temperature hovering around 101.5ºF. Mild heat stroke is between 104º to 106ºF and severe heat stroke is anything over 106ºF.

Heatstroke signs can include:

  • Rapid panting
  • Bright red tongue
  • Red or pale gums
  • Thick, sticky saliva
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting – sometimes with blood
  • Diarrhea
  • Shock
  • Coma

For immediate relief, you can start cooling your pet using cool water. It is important to not cool them too quickly or too much. If their body temperature gets too low or they are put in ice water, they can go into a state of shock. Do NOT use an ice bath. Cool water is your best bet, not ice cold. You can then use a fan to encourage the water to evaporate and cool them.

During this time, give them, access to water or a children’s electrolyte drink to allow your pet to drink on its own. Never force them to drink.

Keep a thermometer at home to check their temperature and make sure it falls appropriately. Rectal temperature should be checked every five minutes or so during an acute crisis. Once they reach 103ºF cooling measures can stop and you can begin to dry your pet to prevent them from losing too much heat. Even if you’re able to manage the crisis successfully we strongly urge owners to bring their pets to the vet as unseen problems can still present a threat. Dehydration and reduced organ function can still harm your pet even after they appear normal.

Your vet can evaluate your pet’s hydration status, and may run blood work and/or administer IV fluids. If necessary, your pet may stay the day to be monitored for shock, kidney failure or other complications.

If the episode was mild your pet should recover without any lasting health concerns. If more severe, ongoing care may be needed. Pets who have had heat stroke before are more likely to get it again so it is imperative to be vigilant during the summer months.

Here are some preventative measures you can take to protect your pet from heatstroke:

  • Risk of heat stroke varies with certain conditions like obesity, age, breathing issues and breed. Talk to your vet to assess your pet’s risk level.
  • Keep water available at all times as well as access to shade.
  • NEVER leave your pet in a hot parked car. The temperature can quickly climb above 100 degrees.
  • Avoid exercise on a hot day. Try to keep activity to early morning or late evening hours.
  • Avoid places where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade.
  • Wetting down your dog with cool water or allowing him access to a pool can help maintain a normal body temperature. Just be sure they can get out of the pool safely. Kiddie pools can be great for smaller yards.
  • Move your dog to a cool area of the house. Air conditioning is one of the best ways to keep a dog cool.

Other heat related concerns

Less serious but still worth considering is sunburn. Though it is more common in very light colored pets, all animals can experience sunburn. The areas most at risk are the non-pigmented areas with sparse hair like ears, nose and abdomen. There are dog and cat friendly sunblocks but given their propensity to groom themselves it is not as effective as simply providing shade. At the height of the summer, keep them out of direct sun. If your pet does experience sunburn, aloe can help soothe the affected skin though it’s best to avoid scented or colored aloe products to minimize toxicity in case of ingestion. More severe burns may require a visit to your vet.

Hot concrete and asphalt can also cause problems. Even thick pads can get worn down and damaged if they spend too much time pounding the pavement. You can test the temperature with your hand. If the ground is too hot for you, it’s likely to be too hot for your pet’s feet. If this is the case try to stick to areas with different terrains like grass and dirt.

Be careful of water in a hose that has been sitting in the sun.  Temperatures of the water can rise to levels that can cause 2nd and 3rd degree burns.  Let the water run until it is cool before wetting down or bathing your pet.