Heatstroke, which commonly affects pets in the summer, is considered a veterinary emergency, because the condition can have serious consequences. Our team at Creature Comforts Veterinary Service wants to help by providing information about heatstroke in pets, and how you can protect your pet. 

What is heatstroke in pets?

A pet’s normal body temperature is between 101 and 102.5 degrees, and pets are considered hyperthermic when their temperature increases above this level. This hyperthermia can originate from a pyrogenic (i.e., fever inducing) or nonpyrogenic cause. Heatstroke is defined as a nonpyrogenic increased body temperature above 104 degrees, and can be classified as exertional or nonexertional.

  • Exertional heatstroke — Exertional heatstroke results from an increase in core body temperature caused by intense physical activity in hot weather, and is more common in pets who have not been acclimated to their environment. 
  • Nonexertional heatstroke — Nonexertional heatstroke results from exposure to increased environmental temperatures without the ability to adequately cool the body. This is the heatstroke form that occurs when a pet is left inside a parked car. 

What pets are susceptible to heatstroke?

Pets have few sweat glands, and must use other, less efficient means to cool themselves. While any pet can be affected by heatstroke, some pets are at higher risk, including senior pets, obese pets, brachycephalic pets, such as pugs, bulldogs, boxers, and Persian and Himalayian cats, and those with preexisting medical conditions.

How does heatstroke affect pets?

High temperatures cause inflammation throughout the body, resulting in numerous deleterious effects. 

  • Central nervous system effects  — Cerebral edema, hemorrhage, and necrosis occur, damaging neurons.
  • Cardiovascular effects — Initially, the heart rate increases and peripheral vessels dilate. If the temperature remains high, blood eventually cannot adequately circulate, causing hypotension and shock.
  • Coagulation effects — The proteins that control blood clotting can become overactive, leading to a condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).
  • Pulmonary effects — Injured lung tissue can cause acute respiratory distress.
  • Gastrointestinal effects — Damage to the gastrointestinal lining can compromise the gut wall integrity, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream. 
  • Kidney effects — Kidney tissue injury can lead to kidney failure.

What are heatstroke signs in pets?

Pets affected by heatstroke exhibit signs that include:

  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Agitation
  • Bright red mucous membranes and tongue
  • Increased heart and respiratory rates
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Mental confusion
  • Incoordination
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Collapse
  • Coma

What should I do if my pet has heatstroke?

If your pet is exhibiting heatstroke signs, you should normalize their body temperature as soon as possible by taking the following steps:

  • Remove your pet from the heat — Immediately take your pet to a cool, well-ventilated area.
  • Offer your pet water — If your pet is conscious, offer them cool water. 
  • Take your pet’s temperature — Use a rectal thermometer to take their temperature, so you can monitor their progress.
  • Apply cool water to your pet — Use room-temperature water to cool your pet. Don’t use ice or cold water which can cause shock, and avoid putting your pet in the shower. 
  • Apply alcohol to your pet — You can apply rubbing alcohol to your pet’s paws to encourage cooling. 
  • Cool your pet gradually — Bring your pet’s temperature down gradually, and stop cooling them when their temperature reaches 102.5, to prevent hypothermia. 
  • Ensure your pet receives veterinary care — Once you have started the cooling process, bring your pet to Creature Comforts Veterinary Service for emergency care. Heatstroke is always a veterinary emergency, and your pet should be evaluated despite seeming normal after you start the cooling process.

How is heatstroke treated in pets?

Active cooling is the most important aspect of treatment, and our veterinary team will use techniques such as cool water baths and fans once your pet reaches our clinic. Other treatments may include:

  • Fluid therapy — Intravenous fluid therapy replaces your pet’s lost fluid and provides cardiovascular support. 
  • Supplemental oxygen — Your pet may require supplemental oxygen if they are in respiratory distress.
  • Antibiotics — Antibiotics may be needed, since damage to the gut lining can cause bacteria to enter your pet’s blood stream.

How can I protect my pet from heatstroke?

Heatstroke can be prevented with these few precautions:

  • Never leave your pet alone in an unattended vehicle. Temperatures in parked cars can skyrocket quickly, and parking in the shade or leaving your windows cracked does not keep the temperature at an acceptable level. 
  • Walk your pet in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day.
  • Allow your pet to fully acclimate to the temperature, which can take up to 60 days.
  • Never leave your pet unsupervised outside on hot days. 
  • Leave your air conditioner running when you leave your home.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise on hot days.
  • Take water and a water bowl when you go for walks, so your pet can drink during the outing.
  • If your pet is a high heatstroke risk, monitor them closely on hot days, and keep them in an airconditioned area except for short bathroom breaks. 

Heatstroke is a serious issue requiring immediate veterinary intervention. If your pet is experiencing heatstroke, contact our team at Creature Comforts Veterinary Service, so we can provide the care they need.