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Heatstroke in pets

In the UK, we are not used to, or prepared for, hot weather. Making errors of judgement about the heat may leave us humans red faced, but for a pet heatstroke can be rapidly fatal.

Heatstroke is a form of hyperthermia (overheating) not caused by a fever. It occurs when dogs are no longer able to self-regulate and keep their temperature at a comfortable level. Body temperatures of greater than 41°C lead to cell damage and death within body tissues. Temperatures greater than 42.5°C will result in thermal injury to tissues, irreparable organ damage, and death. Mortality rates are directly related to the time spent in a hot environment, and how hot it is.

Prevention is always best, and it is important to be aware of the signs. Catching it early and knowing what first aid treatment to perform can literally be life saving.

Why are pets more at risk than us of heatstroke?

Unlike us, our pets have fur coats. If we wore a thick coat on a summer's day we would also struggle to keep cool, especially if in a hot car, or on a run.

Dogs and cats only have a few sweat glands, in their pads, that do little to regulate temperature. They can only effectively lose heat by panting, which means that their natural cooling mechanism is limited and more quickly overwhelmed than our own.

Some breed characteristics may make cooling a challenge. Flat nosed (brachycephalic) breeds such as pugs, shih-tzus, bulldogs, persian cats and lionhead rabbits are more at risk. Obese animals, or those with dense fur are also more susceptible. If your pet is elderly or suffers with breathing issues, then their threshold for suffering heatstroke will be lower. However any pet can suffer heat stroke if exposed to hot temperatures, a lack of ventilation, or insufficient drinking water in warm weather.

Pets are powerless to change their environment. It’s our responsibility to create a safe and cool environment. If they are exercising and having fun, they will often not stop because they get hot until it is too late. We must use common sense, reducing exercise on hot days. This is especially important as more people exercise with their pet dogs. 

What are the signs of heatstroke?

Dogs and cats will pant heavily. They may drool more, or foam at the mouth. Initially they will appear anxious, restless, and distressed. As the condition advances your pet’s gums will become bright red and they may struggle to stand, becoming uncoordinated. Eventually neurological signs such as tremors or seizures can happen, ultimately leading to death. 

Small furries such as rabbits may take rapid breaths, not want to eat much, and be lethargic. Eventually they too will fall unconscious.

What can I do to prevent heatstroke?

Here are our top tips to keep your pet’s temperature healthy in this summer:

●      Don’t ever leave dogs in parked cars. Avoid long journeys, but if absolutely necessary take frequent rest breaks.

●      Make sure dogs always have adequate water to drink. They will need more on a warm day. If you take your pet out, always take water with you.

●      Avoid exercising dogs in the heat of the day. Early morning and late evening is best. Limit exercise on warm days, remembering your dog will not stop when it gets hot. Spray them with water to keep them cool.

●      Provide shade and ventilation. Move small pets to the coolest part of the house or garden.

●      If your pet has thick fur, consider a summer trim to help them keep cool.

●      Watch out for early signs of heatstroke, such as heavy panting.

●      Contact a vet immediately if the animal does not respond to efforts to cool it down.

Is it really that bad to leave my dog in the car, even just for a few minutes?

YES. Dogs die in hot cars.

There is no definitive answer to how long it takes for a dog to die of a heat-related illness but it can be as little as 15 minutes, with signs of heatstroke in just a few minutes. Even when windows are left open, a car can become as hot as an oven quickly, even when it doesn’t feel that warm. When it’s 22 degrees, in a car it can reach an unbearable 47 degrees within the hour. Our pets are less able to cope with this rising temperature than we are.

What do I do if I think my pet has heatstroke?

Ring us immediately. We will want to see your pet so we can start to cool them gradually and give them intravenous fluids if needed. We may want you to perform first aid before and during your journey to us. According to one study into heatstroke in dogs, those actively cooled before arriving at the vets had a lower mortality rate (19%) than those not cooled prior to arrival (49%). Please do not do this without veterinary advice.

First aid treatment involves cooling your pet slowly. Cooling too quickly can have the opposite effect, causing shivering which creates more heat. This switches off the pet’s natural mechanisms of cooling, such as panting and diverting blood to the skin where it is cooler.

Here are a few top tips for heatstroke first aid:

●      Move them to a cool place.

●      Offer them cool water.

●      Pour cool water over them or hose them. It is important that the water is cool and not so cold as to cause shivering and worsen the situation.

●      If possible put them in front of a fan.

●      Placing soaked towels over your pet is not ideal. They act as a layer trapping heat in.

●      Get your pet to the nearest vet.