Knowing When Pets Are Getting Too Hot: What to do about it? Back »

Photo courtesy of Pete Markham, Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This week’s intense heat wave has many people reminding themselves about how to keep themselves safe from the heat and humidity – but people should consider those measures for their pets as well.

Heat Stress & Heat Stroke

Dogs and cats regulate their body temperature by means other than sweating. Dogs typically dissipate heat by panting, while cats do so through a variety of ways. When an animal gets hot, these processes work to maintain the normal 101-102° F body temperature. When these processes have to work for a prolonged period of time, signs of heat stress can result.

Heat stress signs serve as an alert to animal owners that their pet’s body is working hard to cool itself down, and that more severe problems – such as heat stroke - may result if help is not provided. In dogs these signs include excessive panting, excessive salivation, weakness, and muscle cramps. The same signs can be common in cats. Open-mouth breathing is not normal in cats, and should be taken as a sign of stress.

In contrast, heat stroke occurs when these temperature regulation mechanisms fail. Heat stroke is potentially fatal, and prompt treatment by a veterinarian is necessary to prevent death or long-term complications.

Warning Signs

How can one tell when a dog or cat is suffering from heat stroke? Essentially, when an animal progresses from simply being “hot” to being “sick,” heat stroke is occurring. The same signs of heat stress are present, but they progress. The animal becomes restless leading to weakness and an inability to move. They salivate excessively, which leads to dehydration and a dry mouth. They may vomit or have diarrhea. The effects of heat stroke may progress to involve the central nervous system, resulting in seizures, coma, and death.

What to do if heat stroke is suspected?

When heat stroke is suspected, owners should call their veterinarian immediately. The veterinarian will recommend steps to take while the animal is transported to the clinic. Some of these steps may include moving the animal to air conditioning, running cool water on the belly and underneath the limbs (but not submerging the dog in cold or icy water), and using rubbing alcohol on their paws to help dissipate the heat. Once at the veterinary clinic, IV fluids will be an important part of the treatment of heat stroke.

But the best way to prevent this direst effect of heat and humidity on animals is to recognize the potential for and signs of heat stress and to take steps to help animals keep a normal body temperature.

Pets Most at Risk

Some animals are more susceptible to the effects of heat than others. Young kittens and puppies often do not have the same capacity to cool themselves compared to adult animals. On the other side of the spectrum, elderly pets and those with existing heart or respiratory problems will exhibit these signs at lower environmental temperatures than younger animals.

Many pets enjoy the comfort of air-conditioned houses during heat waves, but they can be subjected to heat stress and stroke if they are walked or put through exertion outside during hot weather. Pets that spend most of their day inside and are not acclimated to hot weather are particularly vulnerable. Dogs should not be walked or jogged during extreme hot weather.

Outdoor Pet Considerations

Pets that spend time outside can find relief from heat by having a shady, breezy spot available during all times of the day. Ample drinking water should always be readily available. Some animals enjoy having a kids’ swimming pool or sprinkler nearby to cool themselves off. An animal spending time outside during hot weather is not necessarily being subject to abuse. However, ample water, shade, air flow, and an attentive owner that regularly checks on them are all necessary for pets to ensure they do not progress to a life-threatening situation during a heat wave. If you have any question about your pet’s condition during these hot conditions, contact your veterinarian immediately.

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