Take Shade: Preventing Heat-Related Illness

This entry is article 4 of 7 in the June 2014 issue

Dogs and Heat-Related Illness

With their fur-covered bodies, dogs release heat by panting and at extreme temperatures are not able to release heat quickly enough to cool off. Some dogs are more prone to heat exhaustion and stroke, such as pups and older dogs, as well as dogs who are overweight, sick or recovering from illness. Certain breeds of dogs also need to be watched more carefully, including short-faced breeds, double-coated breeds and dogs bred for cold climates. For example, short-snouted breeds or those with pushed in faces, such as Boxers, Pugs, Bulldogs, and Pekinese, can have trouble breathing in high heat. Alaskan Huskies, Chow Chows and Shelties, have extra thick coats and should be monitored carefully for signs of heat exhaustion. While there is some overlap with the double-coated breeds, there are also dogs bred for cold climates, such as Newfoundlands, Bernese Mountain Dogs and Golden Retrievers, who are more likely to exhibit signs of heat exhaustion.

Heat Exhaustion

A dog’s regular body temperature is 101 degrees. Anything above 103 degrees is abnormal and signs of heat exhaustion may become apparent; between 105-107 degrees it can begin to affect their thought processes. One of the first signs of heat exhaustion is intense panting. The tongue may look larger than normal, taking on a wide flat shape that is hanging out of the animal’s mouth. Your pet may not want to stand up and begin to seem disoriented, confused or dizzy.

You should contact your veterinarian if your pet has any of these symptoms. In the meantime, give him/her water and a cool place to rest; an air conditioned room also works well. Take a rectal temperature every 10 minutes to monitor. If the temperature is above 104 degrees, towels soaked in cool water (not ice cold) can be placed around your pet’s neck to help with the cooling down process. You may also help the cooling process by spraying a dog with a garden hose or immersing him/her in a tub of cool water (for up to two minutes). You may find that mild cases can be resolved fairly easily by taking these steps. Once the temperature is down to 103, it is important to stop the cooling process. It is possible to overcool your dog and give him/her hypothermia if you cool their temp back to normal.

Heat Stroke

If heat exhaustion is not treated at onset and the body temperature reaches 106 degrees, illness may progress to the next phase called heat stroke, which can be fatal. You will want to seek immediate medical attention. Panting may cease, and upon exam their gums and tongue may be dry and very red. Diarrhea and vomiting are common. They may or may not be conscious, but they certainly won’t be acting like themselves. Seizures can occur at this stage and are a sign that damage has already begun in the brain. Collapse, coma and death may subsequently occur.

Cats and Heat-Related Illness

As with dogs, if you catch signs of heat-related illness early, your cat can recover pretty quickly with prompt first aid and veterinary care. It’s important that you watch for signs that may indicate your cat is in stress from the heat. These may include restless behavior, panting, sweaty feet, drooling, and excessive grooming in an effort to cool off. If you observe any of these symptoms and can do so safely, check your cat’s temperature with a rectal thermometer:

  • 100° to 103° F is normal to slightly elevated
  • 103° to 104° F is elevated and requires evaluation by a veterinarian
  • Over 105° F is potentially life threatening and requires immediate care

At temperatures of more than 105 degrees, your cat may show additional signs of distress, such as rapid pulse and breathing, redness of the tongue and mouth, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, staggering gait and diarrhea. This may lead to collapse and seizures where your cat may fall into a coma.

Immediate Care for your Cat

The first thing you should do if your cat is starting to show signs of heat stress is to move him/her to a cool quiet place and provide plenty of water. If the signs of heat exhaustion are more severe, you’ll want to get him/her to the veterinarian, but first take steps to lower his/her temperature by wetting with lukewarm to cool water and you may want to use a fan to circulate the air.

Be careful not to use cold water and not to cool him/her too quickly, checking a rectal temperature every 5 minutes. Once the body temperature is at 103, stop the cooling measures, and dry your cat thoroughly to prevent a continued loss of heat. Even if your cat appears to be improving, seek medical care by a professional, who can evaluate whether there are signs of dehydration or other complications.

In the most extreme cases where you find your cat unconscious, soak him/her in cool water, place a bag of ice or frozen veggies between the legs and go to your veterinarian immediately.

Preventing Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke for Cats and Dogs

Prevention requires some very simple steps:

  1. Never leave your pet in a parked car, even if the windows are cracked
  2. Limit exercise on hot days (e.g., quiet walk). Consider early morning or late at night as these are cooler parts of the day and will make the walk more comfortable for both you and your dog.
  3. Watch for signs of dehydration.
  4. Watch out for hot pavement. You might consider doggie booties available at your local pet supply store. Heat rises from the ground, especially asphalt, and since dogs absorb and release heat through their feet, walking on hot pavement can be dangerous for your dog.
  5. Provide ample shade and water. Add ice to water when possible. Tree shade and tarps are ideal because they don’t obstruct air flow (as compared to a doghouse, for example). However, use your judgment: it’s best not to leave your pet outside if it’s hot.
  6. Keep cats with predisposing conditions like heart disease, obesity, older age, or breathing problems cool and in the shade.
  7. Pay close attention to breeds of dogs more prone to heat stress (as described earlier)
  8. Never leave your animal under direct sunlight without access to shade or plentiful water. They need to be able to take shelter from the sun’s harsh rays just like people.

You will want to do everything possible to avoid putting your pet in this kind of danger and prevention is key. By taking these steps, you will be assured that your furry friends remain cool and comfortable during the upcoming summer months.

Exotics and Heat-Related Stress

Rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs can be particularly prone to heat stress. Housing pets outdoors in the summer will increase the risk of heat stress so it is best to house these sensitive species indoors with access to fans or air conditioning to maintain environmental temperatures under 80 degrees Fahrenheit (temperatures approaching 85 degrees Fahrenheit and above are dangerous for rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas). In fact, outdoor guinea pigs can develop heat stress in ambient temperatures as low as 75 degrees. High humidity can increase stress on these species, especially chinchillas.

Treatment for heat stress in these species includes slowly reducing body temperature with spraying, cool water baths, or wrapping in cool wet towels (making sure not to induce hypothermia), fluid administration, and supportive care as needed. Prognosis may be guarded so prevention is the best approach!

Make sure air conditioners are in good working order before the summer since air conditioner malfunction is a common cause of heat stroke in small mammal species. Ensure pets have protection from the sun, good ventilation, and a plentiful supply of cool drinking water. A simple tip is to freeze water bottles and place them in front of fans to encourage circulation of colder air on particularly warm days.

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