hot under the collar: a primer on heat stroke

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Jun 21 2013

There’s nothing like the dog days of summer, which hold the promise of long days at the beach and picnics in the park. I think our cat and dog friends enjoy it as much as we do, but there is one potentially life threatening danger that accompanies the rise in mercury.

Heat stroke (or hyperthermia) is a condition caused by overheating in your pet. Early in heat stroke, symptoms may be easy to miss. Appearing distressed, panting, and acting restless are common signs, but you may just chalk them up to the excitement of the day. As heat stroke progresses, you may see your pet become unsteady on his feet. His gum color may also change from pink to blue or purple. Heat stroke is an emergency which requires immediate veterinary care.

Avoiding heat stroke is easy if you consider the following points:

• Never leave your pet in your car on a warm day. Not even to run into the store for a minute. On a warm day, your car can become an oven. Studies have shown that even in temperatures as mild as 70 degrees, the inside of your car can rise 40 degrees in as short as an hour. Let me repeat: NEVER leave your pet in your car on even a slightly warm day.

• Provide shade for your outdoor dog. Being able to get out of direct sunlight can help your dog stay cool.

• Because dogs cannot sweat, they rely on panting to cool their systems. Provide adequate ventilation at all times, especially if you have a short-nosed breed like a Pug or English Bulldog.

• Work up slowly to exercise. If you’re like most of us, you AND your pets have been dormant most of the winter. Just as you’re not ready for that marathon right off the bat, our pets also need to ease into their new exercise routine.

• Keep a special eye on older pets. They have a harder time rising and can be very sound sleepers. Falling asleep in the sun may sound luxurious, but for older pets it can be life-threatening.

Just as the case with our canine friends, obese cats are more prone to overheating, so these are the ones that you’ll want to keep a closer eye on during extremely hot days.

There are other heat related situations that can potentially use up one of your feline’s nine lives, though. Knowing that cats seek out the warm spots, it may not be a surprise to hear that cats often jump into the clothes dryer, especially if there are freshly dried clothes there. This is enough to overheat your kitty, but an even more dangerous event may follow. Cats can go undetected in the dryer before it is started, leading to a potentially life threatening (not to mention very scary) wild ride. Check your dryer before you start it, especially in the winter when cats are even more likely to seek warmth.

Your vet will make a diagnosis based on your pet’s history and the physical exam findings. Heat stroke is treated with intravenous fluids and other supportive treatments, including possible plasma transfusions and treatments for kidney failure and gastrointestinal damage. Despite aggressive treatment, there is still a 50% mortality rate in patients who present with severe heat stroke, so remember that prevention is key to keep our furry friends from overheating this summer.