Alabama’s hot, humid summers put pets at increased risk for heatstroke, which can result in life-threatening consequences for pets. Our team at Town and Country Animal Hospital, PC wants to provide information about this veterinary emergency to help you protect your four-legged friend.

Heatstroke in pets

Pets don’t sweat like humans do, and must rely on less efficient means, such as panting, to cool themselves on hot, humid days. Overweight pets, brachycephalic breeds, senior pets, and those affected by other health issues are predisposed to heatstroke, but any pet can be affected. A pet’s normal body temperature is 101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. When their temperature increases above 105, inflammation occurs throughout their body, which can have dangerous consequences. Body systems affected include:

  • Cardiovascular — Initially, the heart rate increases and blood is directed toward the body periphery for cooling. When these measures fail, the blood doesn’t circulate adequately, and organs and tissues don’t receive necessary blood and oxygenation, causing the pet to go into shock.
  • Respiratory — Injury to lung tissue causes acute respiratory distress.
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) — The GI wall becomes more permeable, allowing bacteria to enter the pet’s bloodstream. 
  • Kidneys — Injury from excessive heat and dehydration causes kidney failure.
  • Central nervous system — Brain cells are injured, causing cerebral swelling, bleeding, and cell death.
  • Coagulation — The widespread inflammation can lead to a condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which causes massive bleeding from many sites throughout the body.

Heatstroke signs in pets

Keep a close eye on your pet for the following signs.

  • Excessive panting and drooling — When your pet gets hot, their tongue swells, increasing the surface area to allow heat to escape. Excessive panting and drooling occur when your pet is experiencing heatstroke.
  • Restlessness — Your pet may become agitated and seek shade or water.
  • Difficulty breathing — You may notice exaggerated abdominal movement as your pet inhales and exhales.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea — As your pet’s gastrointestinal tract is compromised, they may vomit or have diarrhea that may be bloody.
  • Weakness — As their condition worsens, your pet may become lethargic, stumble, and possibly collapse.
  • Seizures — If significant brain damage occurs, your pet may have a seizure.

Heatstroke first aid in pets

If you believe your pet is suffering from heatstroke, act immediately to reduce their temperature. Steps include:

  • Moving your pet to a cool area — Take your pet to a cool, well-ventilated area, and if possible, use a fan to help circulate the air.
  • Taking your pet’s temperature — Use a rectal thermometer to take your pet’s temperature so you can monitor their progress.
  • Offering your pet water — If your pet is conscious, offer them lukewarm water to drink.
  • Using wet towels to cool your pet — Place cool towels on your pet and switch them out every five minutes. Don’t use ice or ice water since this can lead to shock.
  • Taking your pet to the veterinarian — Your pet will need veterinary attention if they overheat. If they appear to recover once you cool them down, they still should be evaluated by a veterinarian to ensure no internal damage has occurred.

Heatstroke treatment in pets

The severity of your pet’s condition will determine what treatment is necessary, but common management strategies include:

  • Active cooling — Your pet will be cooled using tepid water and fans until their temperature reaches about 104. If cooling is continued past this temperature, hypothermia could occur.
  • Fluid therapy — Intravenous fluid therapy is important to correct dehydration, increase blood flow to body tissues, and provide cardiovascular support. 
  • Supplemental oxygen — Your pet may require supplemental oxygen if they are in respiratory distress.
  • Antibiotics — Antibiotics may be needed to address bacteremia caused by damage to the GI tract. 

Heatstroke prognosis in pets

Your pet’s prognosis is most dependent on how high their temperature gets and how long it remains elevated. Temperatures over 109.4 degrees have been associated with extreme organ damage and high death rates. Negative prognostic indicators include heart arrhythmias, DIC, and neurologic signs that don’t resolve once your pet’s body temperature is normalized. 

Heatstroke prevention in pets

You can take steps to safeguard your four-legged friend from heatstroke. These measures include:

  • Never leaving your pet in an unattended vehicle — Temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly climb to dangerous levels, putting your pet at risk. Parking in the shade or leaving your car windows cracked isn’t enough to ensure your pet stays safe. 
  • Keeping your pet hydrated — Ensure your pet has access to fresh water, and pack water and a bowl when you go on walks so you can offer them a drink at regular intervals.
  • Avoiding the hottest part of the day — Take walks during the early morning and late evening to avoid exposing your pet to extreme heat.
  • Avoiding strenuous exercise — On hot and humid days, restrict your pet’s activity.
  • Leaving high-risk pets inside — If your pet is elderly, obese, brachycephalic, or has an illness, leave them inside your air-conditioned home except for brief bathroom breaks. 
  • Taking frequent breaks — When outside on a hot day, take frequent breaks in the shade to allow your pet to cool down. 

Ensure your pet is protected from heatstroke this summer by taking the appropriate measures to keep them cool. If your pet overheats, immediately begin cooling them and contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Town and Country Animal Hospital, PC so we can provide the care they need.