As we enter the months where the temperature and the humidity start to rise, we as veterinarians become more concerned about heat stress and heat stroke in pets. We will focus mainly on dogs as they tend to experience heat related problems more than cats, however the information below is also true for cats. Heat stress can quickly advance to heat stroke which is potentially fatal if not treated in a timely manner. We considered heat stress/stroke to be an EMERGENCY situation. In order to keep your dog cool and healthy during the summer months, we will go over heat stress and stroke, signs of heat stress and stroke, what to do if you think your pet is experiencing this, and some tips for prevention.
WHAT IS IT?
Heat stress can occur when a dog’s temperature rises above 103°F; however, if it continues to rise heat stroke can occur once temperatures rise above 105°F. Elevated temperatures, that are not due to fever, can affect the entire body. It can cause gastrointestinal damage which may lead to body wide bacterial infection, kidney damage, clotting disorders, cardiac arrhythmias, low blood pressure, respiratory distress, dehydration, and possible CNS damage that could lead to seizures or coma. Without prompt intervention heat stroke could be fatal.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS?
Dogs do not sweat like humans do to cool off. They do have sweat glands in their paws but the primary way they get rid of excess heat is through panting. Heat stress occurs when panting is not effective enough of cool down the dog. Additional signs of heat stress include excessive panting, decreased coordination, and slow command response. Signs of progression to heat stroke may include: glazed eyes, increased drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, gums/tongue that are blue or bright red, increased heart rate, staggering (ataxia), increased body temperature, decreased activity (lethargy), loss of consciousness, and/or seizures.
WHAT TO DO?
If you think your dog is experiencing heat stress/stroke, begin cooling as soon as possible.
First step: move your dog to a cooler area whether it is indoors, into shade with a fan, or into a cool car with the air conditioner on.
Next step: take a temperature – if your dog’s temperature is elevated, place cool (not cold) wet cloths under the armpits and between the back legs, wet the feet/paw pads with cool water, and place cool wet cloth on head/ears/neck. Be careful with cooling efforts as the dog’s temperature could drop too low. Offer cool water if coherent but do not force to drink as this could lead to aspiration.
Final step: get your dog to the veterinary clinic as soon as possible – call ahead if able so we can be waiting for your arrival.
On arrival, based on the severity of the situation, we will start or continue cooling efforts, may perform blood work, administer oxygen therapy, and administer intravenous fluids and other medications as needed.
Heat stress and stroke can occur in any breed of dog; however, certain dogs can be more at risk and should be monitored more closely. These include the following:
- Very young or old dogs
- Brachycephalic breeds (flat faced breeds) such as bulldogs, bully breeds, shih tzus, pugs, and boxers
- Dogs with very thick or long coats
- Overweight dogs
- Dogs with heart or respiratory conditions
- Working or hunting dogs
All dogs are at risk of heat related events, therefore the following are ways to decrease the chance of occurrence:
- On hot or humid days limit outdoor activities overall or limit it to the times of day when temperatures are cooler (i.e. early morning or later in the evening)
- Shorten the lengths of walks/runs/hikes and make sure to take rests/water breaks
- Make sure shade is always available
- Make sure drinking water is always available
- Do not leave in a hot kennel/cage
- NEVER leave your pets in a parked car – even with the windows rolled down
In conclusion, if you suspect your pet is experiencing heat stress or heat stroke please do not hesitate to call or bring your pet to the clinic. Heat related conditions can be fatal and can have a happier outcome if treated promptly.