The ins and outs of heatstroke – by Dr Rouxlene Sheridan.

Summer is here and a common issue that all caring pet owners should be aware of is heatstroke or heat stress.   Unfortunately, many pet owners do not even realise that their cats and dogs can overheat when the weather is hot, and may only seek treatment at the eleventh hour.

Heatstroke in cats and dogs

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia (elevated core body temperature above the normal range) resulting in heat injury to tissues.  Heatstroke occurs when heat generation exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat.

HEATSTROKE IS A VERY SERIOUS, LIFE THREATENING CONDITION: IT CAN CAUSE DAMAGE TO YOUR PET’S INTERNAL ORGANS, SOMETIMES TO THE POINT WHERE THEY STOP FUNCTIONING AND CAN BE RAPIDLY FATAL – IT REQUIRES URGENT TREATMENT.

What are the main predisposing factors for Heatstroke?

External factors include a warm/hot, humid environment with inadequate ventilation (e.g. a dog left in an unventilated room or car); inadequate shade; inadequate drinking water and excessive exercise.

Internal factors include obesity; brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds like Pugs, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, Persian and Himalayan cats; breathing difficulties/respiratory disease, like laryngeal paralysis or collapsing trachea; heart problems/cardiovascular disease; neurological disease; age extremes (young or old); thick/long hair coat; excessive exercise and dehydration.

What are the symptoms in dogs?  And cats?

Dogs: Dizziness, vomiting, little to no urination, fast panting, bright red tongue, either dark red or pale gums, diarrhoea, weakness and lethargy, dazed and confused appearance, drooling or excessive saliva, uncoordinated movement and fainting or collapse.

Cats: Dizziness, vomiting, little to no urination, fast panting, bright red tongue, either dark red or pale gums, diarrhoea, weakness and lethargy, anxiety (often presents itself by the cat pacing a lot), bleeding from the nose, seizures and muscle tremors.

How can I prevent Heatstroke?

Have a cool, well-ventilated space for your pet.  Good ventilation is critical because many animals lose heat by panting (evaporative cooling) which relies on good air flow.  Outdoor pets should also always have access to shade.

All pets should have access to plenty of cool, fresh and clean drinking water at all times.

Never leave your pet in a car as temperatures rise extremely quickly even on mild temperature days and can kill pets rapidly.

Avoid exercising animals in hot weather.

Avoid hot sand, concrete, asphalt areas or any other areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade.  A nice rule of thumb is: Put the back of your hand on the pavement, and if you can’t keep it there for five seconds, it’s too hot for your pup’s feet.

What do I do when I suspect my pet has heat stroke?

  • Remove your pet from the hot environment immediately.  Do not give the dog aspirin to lower its temperature as this can lead to more problems.
  • Apply or spray cool water onto the animal’s fur and skin.  Then apply a fan/fanning to maximise heat loss.  You can also place a towel on his back and continue to soak the towel and your pet in cold water.  If the animal is unconscious, make sure no water enters the nose or mouth, because this can lead to aspiration pneumonia.
  • Wetting down the area around your pet can also help.
  • Let your pet drink as much cool water as he wants without forcing it to drink.
  • Then take your pet to the nearest Veterinarian immediately.
  • Heatstroke is an emergency – always see a vet.

Heatstroke in dogs and cats can cause unseen problems, such as swelling of the brain, kidney failure, intestinal bleeding and abnormal clotting of blood.  On the way to the veterinarian, travel with the windows open or the air conditioner on.  Even if your pet looks like they may be recovering or you just suspect they might have heatstroke they should still always be checked by a vet.  A vet will check your pet’s body temperature and vital signs and then instigate emergency treatment which may include: putting your pet on a drip; cooling treatments e.g. cooling enemas; supplemental oxygen; medication as required; blood tests to check organ function; ongoing monitoring and treatment as required.

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