Look out for symptoms of heat stroke for pets during the hot summer months.

By Dr. Jaime Barta, DVM

With summer fast approaching, we will soon be swimming in pools, having backyard picnics and enjoying outdoor sports. When we get too hot, we will be able to take a break and cool off inside in the air conditioning. We need to remember to also think about our furry little ones and how the heat can affect them. Protect your babies from heat stroke for pets with these awareness tips.

Hyperthermia is an elevation in body temperature above the generally accepted normal range. Although normal values for dogs vary slightly, it usually is accepted that a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit is abnormal (normal body temperature is 100 F to 102.5 F). Heat stroke is a form of non-fever hyperthermia that occurs when normal internal mechanisms cannot keep the body’s temperature in a safe range. Animals do not have efficient cooling systems (like humans who sweat) and get overheated easily. A dog with moderate heat stroke (body temperature from 104 F to 106 F) can recover within an hour if given prompt first aid and veterinary care. Severe heat stroke (body temperature over 106 F) can lead to multiple organ dysfunctions and requires immediate veterinary assistance.

Some Causes and Risk Factors

The most obvious cause of heat stroke for pets is excessive environmental heat, but there can also be other less obvious causes. Heat stroke can occur when an animal is enclosed in an unventilated room or car, as well as after excessive exercise. Elevated humidity can also exacerbate the heat effects. Heat stroke occurs most commonly in dogs but can also occur in cats. It can affect any breed but is more frequent in long-haired dogs and short-nosed, flat-faced dogs, also known as brachycephalic breeds. It can occur at any age but tends to affect young dogs and geriatric dogs more than average adult dogs. Some other risk factors that can decrease pets’ ability to handle the heat are a previous history of heat-related disease, obesity, cardiac or pulmonary disease, hyperthyroidism and dehydration.

Avoid Overheating

Hot weather means a higher chance of your dog overheating, especially if you’re spending long periods of time outdoors. To reduce the chances of overheating, start by avoiding the heat. Shade alone might not be enough to prevent overheating. Take your dog outside on walks only during the coolest parts of the day, such as early in the morning and later in the evening. Quick walks during the heat of the day are fine, but watch your dog closely for any signs of heat-related distress. If you feel hot, your pet likely does too. Remember, he is also wearing a fur coat! If you have a pet with long hair, grooming in the warmer months can help compensate for the heat.

If you are planning on being outside, make sure plenty of cool water is available for your furry friend. Frozen treats and blocks of ice are also welcome respites from the heat. While it is obvious to most of us to NEVER, EVER leave a dog in a hot car, it happens every summer. Even with the windows down, a car can heat up to temperatures way above the outside readings. The temperature inside a parked car can quickly reach up to 140 degrees. Avoid places like the beach on hot days, and especially avoid concrete or asphalt areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade. Also keep in mind that your pet is walking on these surfaces barefoot. If the ground is too hot for your feet, it likely will burn and blister your pet’s feet.

Signs of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Be on the lookout for early symptoms of heat exhaustion, including rapid panting and drooling, bright red gums and/or tongue, weakness, dizziness, increased body temperature (above 103 F), depression and balance problems. As the condition worsens, pets may experience labored breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, shock, seizures and even coma. If you see any of the above signs, get your pet to the veterinarian immediately. The progressive stages are acute kidney failure, irregular heart rhythms, fluid buildup in the lungs, pinpoint areas of bleeding, death of liver cells, stoppage of the heart and breathing, and a generalized severe inflammatory response syndrome leading to organ failure and death.

What to Do for Overheating

Should you notice any of the common signs of overheating, please don’t place your dog in ice-cold water or put alcohol on him in an effort to cool him down rapidly — this can put his body into shock.

It is important to bring a dog’s body temperature down slowly. Move him to a cool place before taking him to your veterinarian and drape a damp, cool towel over his body (for very small dogs, use lukewarm water). Then increase air movement around him with a fan. Wet the cloth again frequently with cool water. Allow free access to water or a children’s rehydrating solution if the dog can drink on his own. Do not try to force-feed cold water; he may inhale it or choke. Check his rectal temperature every 5 minutes. Once the body temperature is 103 F, stop the cooling measures, dry him thoroughly and cover him so he does not continue to lose heat. Even if your dog appears to be recovering, get him to your veterinarian as soon as possible. If it is after hours, take him to the closest animal emergency room. He should still be examined since he may be dehydrated or have other internal complications.

A dog’s normal temperature is between 100 F and 103 F, so once he hits 104 F, he is starting to get into dangerous territory (106 F or higher can be fatal). Remember that cats can get overheated too and will exhibit the same signs. If you think your cat or dog may be showing signs of overheating or heat stroke, please get her to the vet ASAP.

What Your Veterinarian Will Do

Your veterinarian will lower your dog’s body temperature to a safe range (if you have not already) and continually monitor it. Your dog will be given intravenous fluid therapy, and possibly oxygen. He will be monitored for shock, respiratory distress, kidney failure, heart abnormalities and other complications, and will be treated accordingly. Blood samples may be taken before and again during the treatment. The clotting time of the blood will be monitored, since clotting problems are a common complication of heat stroke. Dogs with moderate heat stroke often recover without complicating health problems. Severe heat stroke can cause organ damage that might need ongoing care such as a special diet, supplements or medications prescribed by your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will do all he or she can to treat your pet’s heat stroke, but the best thing you can do is keep your furry friends safe and help them avoid heat stroke in the first place!