Ask the Vet: Heat Stroke by Stefanie Wong, DVM

What is heat stroke?

With the impending transition from spring to summer, temps climb into the 80s and 90s and sunny blue skies are the norm. Although you and I can change into shorts and tshirts, our pets often have a harder time coping with the warm weather. Did you know that pets, unlike humans, cannot sweat? To make matters worse, they’re covered with a dense fur coat designed for trapping heat. The primary (and for the most part, only) way they can release heat and cool themselves down is by panting. Unfortunately, sometimes panting doesn’t work as well as it should. When this happens, their internal body temperature can skyrocket, resulting in a condition called heat stroke.

Normal body temperature in dogs and cats runs from 99.5F – 102.5F. With heat stroke, we can see temperatures of 104 and higher. Once temperatures reach 106 and higher, organ damage can result and the need arises for aggressive treatment and hospitalization.

What should I look for?

Excessive panting and restlessness is the first sign of heat stroke. As it progresses, pets will start to salivate excessively. Most will go into shock - they may start to have vomiting, diarrhea and become weak or unsteady on their feet; their gum color is often brick red.

What should I do?

Heat stroke is a serious veterinary emergency. Take these initial steps at home then bring your pet to a veterinarian, ASAP:

  • Move your pet to a cool/shaded spot

  • Using a garden hose, buckets of water or bathtub, wet them down

  • *Do NOT use ice or cold water (this can actually make it worse)

  • Offer your pet water, but do not force them to drink if they do not want to

  • On the way to the hospital, turn all the air vents to your pet, with the fan turned all the way up

How does heat stroke start?

The following situations are very common when an animal comes in with heat stroke:

  • Weekend warrior type strenuous exercise on a hot day

  • Left outside on a hot day with no access to shade

  • Left in a car (doesn’t matter if the windows are rolled down or not, can even be seen with mild temperatures like 70F)

  • The temperature inside a car can rise quickly if exposed to direct sunlight (in one study, temperatures inside cars rose 40 degrees over the course of 1 hour!)

  • Brachycephalic (smush-faced dogs) such as pugs, Boston Terriers, etc. as well as dogs that are obese, have respiratory disease (ie. laryngeal paralysis) and are geriatric are at higher risk for developing heat stroke

Heat stroke is an entirely preventable emergency!

  • Especially if your pet is at higher risk (see the above list), keep them indoors in an air-conditioned environment during the hottest part of the day

  • On hot days, save the longer walks/higher activity for the early mornings and late evenings

  • If your pet is going to be outside in the backyard, make sure there’s a shaded area for them to escape the heat and plenty of cool water for them to drink

  • Do not leave your pet in the car, even if it’s for a short errand

  • You can read about Tucker, a Newfoundland who suffered from heat stroke and was treated at our hospital, here.

Tags: heat stroke, warm weather, canine health, ask the vet

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