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Heat Stroke in Dogs & Cats

Heat Stoke in Dogs & Cats

As we slip into the cooler weather of the fall, I find myself wanting to log more miles in my running shoes. Even more, game than I am, Walter, my lab, sees my running shoes and knows that this is the moment he has been waiting for all of his life (or at least since our last run together).  As he jumps and spins by our front door, begging to come along, the guilt of not taking him outweighs the worry I have about the run being too long or too hot.  Now I must adjust my plan to accommodate his needs- the length of run, access to shade during the run, availability of water to drink and cool off in to name a few to help avoid heat stroke for my dog.   

Heat stroke in dogs and cats can occur when an animal’s body temperature exceeds 105 degrees Fahrenheit. This most often occurs when animals are left in cars without adequate ventilation.  A study by Stanford University showed that the temperature within a vehicle can increase by up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a one hour time period regardless of the outside temperature.  So let’s do the math.  Let’s pretend I put Walter in the car and go for a run at 8:00 am.  It is a lovely 60 degrees out and we run for 1 hour on the river trail.  On the way back to town, I decide to stop at Safeway to get some grocery shopping done- only now it is 65 degrees out.  Still cool enough, right?  I am in the store for an hour and when I get back to the car, Walter is a wobbly, panting, droopy puddle of a dog and it is 105 degrees in the car!  

What should you do about heat stroke?

If you suspect that your pet is suffering from heat stroke, immediately remove him from the environment he is in and put him in a cooler one.  A direct fan on him/ her is a good idea.  Wet the ears and paws with cool water and place cool wet towels on the armpits, belly, and neck.  The water should be cool but not cold and do not use ice packs too cool.  Allow access to cool, fresh drinking water if your pet is not vomiting.  If you are able to take your pet’s temperature, cool until the body temperature reaches 103 degrees Fahrenheit.  Once this is achieved, it is time to get your pet back in the car to head to your veterinarian as heat stroke is a condition that affects many body systems and cooling is not enough. Animals that suffer from heat stroke can develop life-threatening blood clotting disorders, kidney issues, gastrointestinal problems and more.  It is imperative that they are evaluated by a veterinarian.  

Who is at risk?

During my veterinary career, I have seen all makes and models of dogs and cats develop heat stroke. Some dogs are more prone than others: Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston Terriers, overweight dogs, Labrador Retrievers (Labs can have a genetic condition that makes them more prone to heat intolerance and exercise induced collapse), to name a few.  I have seen dogs that are quite fit and seemingly accustomed to running in the heat collapse, as well.  The cats I have treated were almost always mistakenly locked in a garage or attic without water for several days.  As you can imagine, none of these incidents were intentionally malicious, and all were tragic for the pet and owner.  Even with a good outcome, the guilt the family member suffered was heart-wrenching on its own.

The take home message is- any animal is susceptible to heat stroke.  It is up to us to prevent it.  When the weather turns cooler, it is easy to forget that they are wearing a fur coat and cool their whole body by panting – which in turn makes the car they might be locked in even hotter.  

Sometimes, it is better for them to be left at home!