Keeping them cool – A guide to recognising and managing heatstroke in small animals

by | Jan 22, 2024

With the warmer weather just around the corner, the number of cats and dogs (as well as other domesticated pets) visiting the vet due to heatstroke rises exponentially. Unfortunately, many pet owners do not even realise that their cats and dogs can overheat even when the weather is mild, and may only seek treatment when their pet is already extremely unwell.

So what exactly is heatstroke (or heat stress) and how does it effect the body?

  • Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia (when the core body temperature goes outside the normal range)
  • This results in heat injury to tissues and organs inside the body, and occurs when the body’s ability to lose heat is exceeded by the heat that is being generated.

What are the main predisposing factors of Heatstroke?

  • Warmer/humid environment or weather
  • Inadequate ventilation and shade
  • Excessive exercise
  • Inadequate water and dehydration
  • Physiological makeup of your pet (obesity, young or old, brachycephalic breeds (flat-faced cats and dogs), heart and respiratory problems, neurological disease, thick/long coat etc.)

What are the most common signs of heat stress:

  • Excessive panting
  • Bright red gums and tongue (gums may also appear very pale)
  • Salivating heavily
  • Increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • Muscle tremors and seizures
  • Lethargic or collapsed
  • Dizziness or a mentally altered state
  • Vomiting and Diarrhoea
  • Restless behaviour or increasing agitation

What do if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • If appropriate and possible, get someone to call your closest veterinarian to notify them of your arrival whilst you aim to do some emergency treatment at home first
  • You must first remove your pet from the warm environment
  • Wetting your pet’s hair with tepid/cool water and then running a fan on them is crucial to circulate the warm air away from their body
  • Always avoid using iced water, ice or any other frozen products
  • Avoid forcing your pet to drink in any way
  • Safely transport your pet to the closest veterinary clinic – heatstroke is a incredibly serious, life threatening and rapidly fatal condition that requires urgent veterinary treatment. Even if you think that your pet is improving, it is imperative to seek veterinary care to ensure their wellbeing.

How do we help when your pet has suffered from heatstroke:

  • Determine that it is in fact heatstroke and not another emergency condition
  • Provide your pet with intravenous fluids by placing them on a drip
  • Perform blood tests to check organ function
  • Closely monitor core body temperature
  • Provide ongoing active cooling, monitoring and medications as required

How to avoid your pet getting heatstroke:

  • Always provide a cool and well ventilated space for your pet, both inside and out.
  • Easy access to large amounts of fresh, clean drinking water
  • Never leave your animal in a car unattended. Temperatures can rise rapidly even when the weather is mild and can be extremely fatal to your pet
  • Try and avoid exercising animals when the weather is warm
  • Avoid walking on surfaces where the heat is reflected such as sand and bitumen
  • Being aware of your pet’s predispositions and managing their environment and exercise accordingly

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