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Heat Stroke in Pets

June 29, 2015

The weather is heating up, so let’s talk about keeping our pets cool.

Heat stroke is defined as a state of extreme hyperthermia (high body temperature) that causes heat injury to a variety of tissues including the brain, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and circulatory system. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s generation of heat outpaces the body’s ability to cool itself, causing the body temperature to rise. Hot and/or humid conditions, high temperatures in an enclosed space such as a car, direct sunlight, exercise, and some health problems can all generate heat in the body. Dogs and cats cool primarily through evaporation (panting) and conduction (contact with cool surfaces). Factors that decrease their ability to cool include humidity (reducing the effectiveness of panting), poorly groomed coat, lack of access to shade, obesity, airway obstructions (laryngeal paralysis, brachycephalic conformation such as pugs, bulldogs, or Persian cats), age, dehydration, or some hormonal or neurologic diseases.

Early symptoms of heat stroke (sometimes called heat stress) include shade seeking, excessive and exaggerated panting with the mouth very wide open and a flattened tongue (sometimes called a “spade tongue”), and restlessness. As the condition progresses, additional symptoms include excessive drooling, ignoring commands, disorientation, stumbling, and bright red gums. Finally, symptoms progress to include gray or purple gums, collapse, and seizures.

Cats do not experience heat stroke nearly as much as dogs, partly because people do not generally engage in the same types of activities with cats as with dogs (hiking, walks, throwing the ball, dog sports) and because many cats are either completely indoor pets or spend the daylight hours resting in the shade while being more active at night. It is still important during hot weather to make sure that your cat has plenty of access to fresh, clean water and that outdoor cats have access to shade.

Many dogs are so motivated to continue activities with us that they will not self-regulate their activity in hot weather and cannot recognize when they are overheating, so it is important to keep a close eye on them. Be sure to take plenty of breaks for water, rest, and shade, and if you have any doubt about your dog’s safety considering quitting for the day and getting indoors. Be aware that dogs can overheat even when swimming if the water is warm enough! If you are taking your dog on an outing – hiking or even to the park – it is a good idea to pack some supplies in case of heat stress or heat stroke: A few bath towels and a cooler with ice packs and enough cool (refrigerated) water to wet the towels.

Heat stress can usually be reversed and prevented from progressing to heat stroke if you recognize the signs early. However, if you suspect heat stroke it is essential to seek veterinary care as soon as possible. In either case, it is very important not cool your pet down too quickly. Reversing the temperature too rapidly can cause damage and shock. Do not soak or immerse a pet with suspected heat stroke in cold water. Instead, you can lightly drape towels soaked in cool water over your pet’s body. You can also apply cold compresses, cold water, or rubbing alcohol to the paw pads.  Run the air conditioning in the car and get to the clinic as soon as possible. If you do not have cool water available, don’t spend a lot of time looking for it – just call and come to the clinic right away.

We want everyone, people and pets alike, to have a great summer! A few simple precautions can help prevent heat stroke in our pets and keep the fun rolling.


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