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Heatstroke in Dogs and Cats - Causes, Signs and First Aid


Heatstroke occurs when an animal gets severely overheated, most commonly during the summer months. Pets don't sweat like people do; they cool themselves by panting and through the pads of their feet. When normal body mechanisms can't keep the temperature in a safe range, brain damage and eventual death result.

Causes:

  • Pet is left in a parked car (the most common reason). Every summer, thousands of cats and dogs die needlessly after they are left inside cars. Even when car windows are cracked open and pet guardians are gone "just for a minute." The rapid buildup of heat inside the car can reach well over 160 degrees F. in a few minutes. Leaving your pet in a parked car can be a deadly mistake. Act immediately if you see an animal enclosed in a car on a summer day. Call the police or a humane organization for help.
  • Previous episode of heatstroke. Pets with a history will be more susceptible in the future.
  • Lack of appropriate shelter for an animal outdoors. If pets are outside, make sure they have plenty of shade and water so they can stay cool.
  • Excessive exercise in hot, humid weather. During hot weather, it's critical to keep all dogs, especially those with long or thick coats, cool and comfortable during workout sessions and avoid overheating. In warm weather months, go out early or late in the day when the temperature is cool.
  • Breed dispositions. Dogs with flat, pushed-in faces, like Bulldogs, Pugs and Pekingese, are particularly susceptible.
  • Old or overweight pets or those with an underlying disease. These animals are at highest risk for heatstroke because even their normal cooling systems lose effectiveness.
  • Heavy-coated dogs in warm climates. Tangled and matted fur holds heat close to the body and prevents air circulation, so keep dogs with long, heavy fur brushed.
  • Pet carriers that have poor ventilation can become deathtraps. If you need to confine your pet in a carrier or cage, make sure there's plenty of ventilation.

Signs:

  • Excessive panting or difficulty breathing.
  • Body temperature 104 degrees F. or above.
  • Collapse
  • Bloody nose, bloody vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Mucous membrane color is redder than normal.
  • Salivation
  • Depression, stupor (acting drunk), seizures or coma.

First Aid:

  • Get your pet out of direct heat and into a cool place.
  • Take the animal's temperature using a rectal thermometer lubricated with petroleum jelly.
  • Spray the animal with cool water. If using an outdoor hose, run the water for a minute or so to cool it off before spraying your pet. Spray for a minute or two, then retake the temperature.
  • Use ice packs or place water-soaked towels on the head, neck, feet, chest and abdomen.
  • Turn on a fan and point it in the animal's direction.
  • Offer your pet some cold water to drink or an ice cube to lick.
  • Rub alcohol under the animal's front and back legs or on the pads. Do not use large quantities of alcohol (more than half a pint), as it can be toxic to dogs and cats.
  • Take the animal to the nearest veterinary hospital immediately.
The goal is to decrease the body temperature to 104 degrees F. in the first 10-15 minutes. Once 104 degrees is reached, you must stop the cooling process. Even if you successfully cool your pet down to 104 degrees, you must take the animal to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Many consequences of heatstroke won't show up for hours or even days. Some of these conditions can be fatal if not treated medically.

Summer is a time for both you and your pets to enjoy the sunshine and outdoors, but along with the fun, the season also offers up situations that can endanger your pet. By taking precautions, you can decrease the chance that disaster will happen.

Information Sources:
- American Red Cross, Humane Society of the United States