Vet Blog

Heatstroke in Pets

December 31, 2018

Animals Affected by Heat, Also
Michael W. Stephan, D.V.M.
Juno Beach Animal Hospital

There has been much in the news lately about the current heat wave across the U.S. The human death toll has exceeded 150. It is natural that the news focus on the effects of the heat on people, and the steps we can take to avoid becoming victims of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but as pet owners we should also be aware of the effects of high temperatures on our animal friends and the steps we can take to keep them safe.

Unlike people, dogs, cats, and birds can not perspire to cool themselves. Their sweat glands are limited to their nose and foot pads, and their primary way of cooling is by panting. Air is taken into the lungs, warmed to body temperature, and then exhaled, carrying the heat energy out with it. As the air temperature gets closer and closer to body temperature, less heat can be transferred to it. A dog or cats normal body temperature is usually between 101 and 102 degrees. Raising the body temperature as little as five degrees can lead to permanent brain damage or death!

There are three situations which most commonly lead to heat stroke. The first is the animal who is left out doors without shelter from the sun and adequate fresh water to drink. Even without vigorous exercise, the temperature of these pets will rise faster than panting can cool them. In the second situation, an animal is out doors for only a short period of time, but is engaged in exercise. A simple walk along a sunny sidewalk in the middle of the day can be more than their system can handle. The third situation is the often fatal closed car. A car left in the sun with the windows closed will heat up to 120 degrees in fifteen minutes, and over 140 degrees within half an hour. Even if the windows are left open slightly, if the temperature in the car reaches 110 degrees the pet inside will suffer heat stroke very quickly.

What are some of the warning signs of heat exhaustion? Obviously, panting is the first sign that your pet is over heated. Dogs pant very commonly as a way of cooling, but if it becomes quick and labored, or if it goes on for a long period of time, get them to a cooler area. When cats or birds pant, it is important to get them cooler as soon as possible. If your pet shows extreme lethargy or weakness, or if they faint or have a seizure, seek professional help immediately.

Remember that large animals have a harder time keeping cool than small animals and that very young and very old animals will be more affected by the heat than those in between. Long haired animals and animals with dark colored coats will heat up faster than short haired or light colored animals. Many people keep their long haired pets shaved down in the hotter months and this helps to keep the pets cooler.

You can take some simple steps to keep your animal safe from the heat. If at all possible keep them in air conditioning. If they must be out doors, provide shade in a well ventilated area, and be sure plenty of water is available at all times. Filling a large bowl or bucket with water and ice will help to keep the water cooler for a longer period of time. Limit exercise to the early mornings and late evenings. If your dog is used to accompanying you on runs or long walks, it might be best to do a shorter exercise period with your pet, and them leave them at home while you finish the rest of your circuit. Finally, never leave your pet in a parked car without the air conditioner running for any period of time.

If your pet shows signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, see your veterinarian immediately! As a first aid measure, you can soak the hair coat with cool water to help lower the temperature, and then seek professional assistance.