Tips on Heat Stroke

Heat stroke in animals

By Kathy Gagliardi


As we rush toward the comfort of air conditioning during hot weather, we should not forget our pets and their sensitivity to heat — not only for their comfort, but for their health. Heat stroke is a very serious and often fatal disease that occurs when an animal’s cooling mechanisms cannot keep up and their body temperature elevates beyond 105-106 degrees. Cells and proteins in the body are sensitive to excess heat. When they are damaged, they can lead to conditions that include kidney failure, brain damage, heart arrhythmias, liver failure, muscle damage, systemic inflammation and excessive blood clotting.

Since animals do not sweat (except to a minor degree through their foot pads), they do not tolerate high environmental temperatures as well as humans do. Dogs depend upon panting to exchange warm air for cool air. When the air temperature is close to body temperature, cooling by panting is not an efficient process. Cats differ from dogs in that cats that are open mouth breathing or panting are showing signs of serious stress and need immediate veterinary care. With a cat, panting is never a sign of the animal just trying to cool down.

Common situations that can set the stage for heat stroke in animals include:

Being left in a car in hot weather, even with cracked windows and in the shade

Exercising strenuously in hot, humid weather

Suffering from a heart or lung disease that interferes with efficient breathing

Suffering from a high fever or seizures

Being confined on concrete or asphalt surfaces

Being confined without shade and fresh water in hot weather

Having a history of heat stroke

Overweight animals, long-haired breeds, brachycephalic breeds (short faced dogs or cats) and older animals are at increased risk of heat stroke.

Signs: Signs of heat stroke include excessive panting or trouble breathing, bright red gums, lethargy, behavior changes, muscle tremors, bruising, decreased urination, bloody stools, vomiting and unconsciousness.

Treatment: Emergency measures to cool the animal must begin at once. Move the dog out of the source of heat, preferably into an air-conditioned place and call your veterinarian immediately. Successful treatment for most heat stroke animals requires intensive emergency care at a veterinary clinic. Most affected animals will require inpatient hospitalization and intensive care for at least 24 hours, until their temperature and clinical signs are stabilized. Common nursing care protocols that can be done on your way to the veterinary clinic include spraying the animal with cool water; using convection cooling with fans or cooling pads, and using evaporative cooling with rubbing alcohol on the foot pads. Animals should not be immersed in ice or ice-cold water. Cooling a hyperthermic animal too quickly can cause its blood vessels to constrict (peripheral vasoconstriction), which will make it harder for their body to cool down.

Prevention: Some ways to help protect your pet on hot days include limiting exercise during the hottest part of the day, exercising in the cool early morning hours, providing shade and fresh clean water at all times, and NEVER leaving an animal in a car when it is 60 degrees or more outside, even if only for a few minutes.

Early recognition and treatment of heat stroke can mean the difference between life and death. So if you think your animal is suffering from heat stroke call your veterinarian.