As the weather heats up, most people spend more time outdoors to enjoy the sun and warmth before winter comes yet again. But heat can be dangerous for pets, who have less efficient cooling mechanisms than people, and can’t take off their fur coats. When heat overwhelms a pet’s cooling abilities, their body temperature rises to dangerous levels—a condition called heat exhaustion or heatstroke. While all pets are susceptible, dogs who are short-nosed, older, or have certain medical conditions are at higher risk. Let Town and Country Animal Hospital keep your pet safe this summer season.

What is heatstroke in pets?

Heatstroke occurs when body temperature rises above 103 degrees, but is not caused by fever. The increased temperature damages cells all over the body, resulting in a multitude of signs, including:

  • Excessive panting
  • Drooling
  • Collapse
  • Mental dullness, seizures, or coma
  • Bloody or brown urine
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

Heatstroke damage depends on the length of time and degree of temperature elevation—some pets will make a full recovery, but some may die. Heatstroke consequences may include:

  • Brain swelling and damage
  • Multiple organ system failure
  • Clotting and bleeding abnormalities
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Gastrointestinal damage that leads to blood infection (i.e., sepsis)
  • Heart arrhythmias
  • Shock from poor blood circulation

What are heatstroke risk factors in pets?

Dogs sweat only a small amount through a few glands on their feet—they primarily cool themselves through panting, which is not efficient in temperatures above 89 degrees, or high humidity. Heatstroke typically occurs when pets are placed in enclosed spaces, like a hot car, or left outdoors on a hot day without adequate water or shade. Exercise and activity can also lead to heatstroke, if the pet has not been acclimated to the environment or the activity. Heatstroke is more likely to occur in dogs, with some at higher risk, including:

  • Brachycephalic dogs (i.e., flat-faced, short-nosed dogs, such as pugs or bulldogs)
  • Older dogs
  • Dogs with chronic medical conditions
  • Dogs with collapsing trachea or laryngeal paralysis
  • Overweight or obese dogs

What should I do if I suspect my pet has heatstroke?

First, if your pet is at higher heatstroke risk, set aside a thermometer for rectal dog use only. If you notice heat stress signs, such as panting, confusion, or collapse, check their temperature right away. If their temperature is above 104 degrees, begin emergency cooling measures, and call your veterinarian or emergency hospital to let them know you’ll soon be on your way. Cooling should include:

  • Cool water — Place your pet in a tub with cool—not ice cold—water, ensuring their head remains above the water. If you have a large pet, spray them gently with a hose, or wet them down with towels.
  • Fans or moving air — Once your pet is wet, you can have someone fan them while you travel to the veterinarian. 
  • Avoid ice — Ice constricts blood vessels and will cool your pet less efficiently.

How is heatstroke treated in pets?

Your veterinarian will continue cooling measures, if needed, and likely start intravenous (IV) fluids to help with cooling, treat low blood pressure or shock, and flush the kidneys. They will run tests to check organ function and look for clotting problems. Your pet may require a blood transfusion, antibiotics, medications to reduce brain swelling and gastrointestinal damage, and several days of hospitalization and monitoring to watch for delayed heat damage. Unfortunately, mortality after heatstroke ranges from 19% to 49%, and pets who survive are at higher risk for future heatstroke events.  

How can I keep my pet safe from heatstroke?

Heat safety requires the pet owner’s awareness and vigilance. If you feel hot outdoors, your pet will likely feel hotter. To reduce your pet’s heatstroke risk, follow these tips:

  • Limit time outdoors — Stay inside during the hottest parts of the day, saving outdoor activities with your dog for the cooler morning or evening hours.
  • Provide adequate water — Ensure your pet has water available at all times. If you’re walking or hiking together, bring a collapsible bowl for your dog and enough water for you both, and drink frequently. 
  • Keep high-risk pets indoors — Leave your high-risk pets at home when the temperature rises, and look for safe indoor activities instead.
  • Never leave pets unattended — Never leave your pet in a car or outside unattended. Temperatures in a closed car can rise to more than 100 degrees in only a few minutes, and pets left outdoors alone aren’t being monitored for heat stress signs.
  • Pay attention to your pet — Watch your pet for overheating signs, such as slowing down on their walk, seeming confused, or panting hard, and then stop to find shade, take a water break, and head back home.

The dog days of summer can be risky for certain pets, but these Town and Country Animal Hospital’s heat safety tips will help you stay safe this year. Call us if you have questions about heat safety, or any concerns about your pet this season.