Reaching a Fever Pitch: treating fevers in pets

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Feb 27 2012

We had a health scare in our house over the weekend – my son’s first fever. As a mom, I can’t help but worry about things like this, even though as a veterinarian, I know that fevers serve a purpose. Our furry children get fevers, too, although often times the signs are less obvious than in our human children.

Simply put, a fever is an elevated body temperature in response to infection or inflammation. A normal body temperature in our pets is higher than it is in us. A rectal temperature of 101 to 102.5 is considered normal for cats and dogs. And that’s right – I said rectal temperature. Unfortunately, no one has devised a more accurate and safe method of taking pet temperatures yet. And if you can get your cat to keep a thermometer under her tongue until it beeps, you deserve a prize*!

A fever shouldn’t be confused with what we term “non-pyrogenic hyperthermia,” which is elevated body temperature due to increased exercise, extreme environmental heat or heat stroke, or prolonged seizures.

Of course, like most things in life, there are pros and cons to having a fever.

Some of the benefits of a fever include:

  • Inhibiting the growth of infection producing bacteria.
  • Contributing to cancer cell death.
  • Encouraging patient inactivity/rest, thereby contributing to recovery.

On the down side, though, fevers:

  • Make the patient feel terrible, and usually lead to lack of appetite and a decreased nutritional state
  • Lead to the production of endotoxins, which can complicate illness.
  • Strain the ability of the heart to function normally.
  • Can cause seizures and brain damage, if they are prolonged.

Unfortunately, you cannot tell if your pet has a fever in any way other than taking a rectal temperature. The wetness or dryness of your pet’s nose, as well as whether or not your pet’s nose is warm or cold, is irrelevant in terms of internal temperature. If your pet is acting lethargic, shivering or doesn’t seem interested in eating, he or she may have a fever.

If you suspect your pet does have a fever, call your vet and arrange to have your pet seen as soon as possible. In the meantime, do not give over-the-counter human medications! Many, many, many things can cause fever, and the sooner your vet figures out what is causing your pet’s fever, the sooner he or she can be on the road to recovery.

Figuring out what is causing your pet’s fever can occasionally be problematic. Our pets can’t tell us where it hurts, so it is up to your vet to figure out how to best treat the problem.

Sometimes the source of a fever is obvious, and sometimes it takes a little more digging (in the form of blood work, X-rays, ultrasounds and more blood work) to get to the bottom of the problem. All of these tests can add up, which is where veterinary pet insurance from Petplan pet insurance can help. The dreaded “fever of unknown origin” often takes some time to figure out, but rest assured that your vet is trying her hardest to provide the best care for your pet.

Nobody likes to be sick, and our pets are no different. While fevers serve an important biologic function, they make us feel terrible. If your pet is showing signs of a fever, get her into the vet quickly to get her back to her old self.

* Just kidding. Please do not try this. Especially with a glass thermometer.