Prevent Heat Stroke Before it Happens

by Danielle Cookish

The harsh New England winter is over and you’re finally ready to layer on the sunblock and head out for some fun in the sun with your canine companion. You’ve got plenty of clean water and cool towels, but the summer weather could still pose a risk for a veterinary emergency.

Heat stroke (or heat exhaustion) is a serious condition that occurs when a dog or cat’s body temperature reaches a dangerously high level. The average body temperature of domestic cats and dogs ranges between 101 degrees and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. A body temperature over 103 degrees is considered hyperthermic. Hyperthermia becomes heat stroke at 106 degrees. This is a medical emergency and the affected animal is at risk of seizure, organ failure, and death.

While the human body lowers its temperature by sweating, dogs and cats cool down by panting as well as releasing excess heat through their paw pads. Heat stroke is much easier (and less stressful) to prevent than it is to treat.

Risk factors

  • Overweight or obese pets
  • Elderly pets
  • Pets with pre-existing heart and/or lung disease
  • Pets with dark fur
  • Pets with brachycephalic (short, flat) faces
  • Waves of extremely hot temperatures and high humidity
  • Poor ventilation in hot places (in a house or car with no air circulation)
  • Limited or no access to water

Symptoms to watch for

  • Excessive panting and/or drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden weakness or collapse
  • Seizure
  • Diarrhea

If your companion is showing symptoms of hyperthermia, do not offer ice water or submerge them in cold water as this could cause a sudden change in blood pressure and make things worse.

Remove the animal from direct sunlight and take their temperature. If it’s over 103 degrees, offer cool drinking water and towels wet with room temperature water. Rubbing alcohol can also be applied to paw pads with a small towel or cotton pad to help bring the body temperature down gradually. Stop the cooling process once your pet’s temperature is beginning to regulate (102.5 degrees or lower).

If there is no decrease in temperature after 10 minutes of cooling efforts, take your pet to the nearest veterinary hospital for medical attention. They may require fluids and other supportive care to regulate their body temperature.

Most importantly, establish a relationship with a veterinarian for ongoing wellness care as well as follow-up in the event of a medical emergency.

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