Over the past few weeks the mercury has risen to levels that many of us deem unbearable. We all hear about not leaving our loved ones in a car on a hot day for fear of heat related illness or even worse death, but what exactly is heat stroke, and how can we be prepared for it?
Heat stroke is defined as a state of extreme hyperthermia (high body temperature) that causes heat injury to a variety of tissues including the brain, kidneys, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and circulatory system. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s own ability to generate heat through natural processes outpaces the body’s ability to cool itself, therefore causing the body temperature to rise. Hot and/or humid conditions, high temperatures in an enclosed space such as a car, direct sunlight, exercise, and some health problems can all generate additional heat in the body.
Dogs and cats cool primarily through evaporation (panting) and conduction (contact with cool surfaces). Factors that decrease their ability to cool include humidity (thus reducing the effectiveness of panting), a poorly groomed coat, lack of access to shade, obesity, airway malformations (think of your pugs, bull dogs, boxers, and persian cats), and dehydration to name a few.
Early symptoms of heat stroke may include shade seeking, excessive and exaggerated panting with the mouth very wide open and a flattened appearance to the tongue, and restlessness. As your pet’s internal body temperature continues to climb, he/she will exhibit additional symptoms include excessive drooling, disorientation, and stumbling. Finally, severe symptoms may progress to include gray or purple gums, collapse, and seizures.
Cats do not experience heat stroke nearly as often as dogs, partly because people do not generally engage in the same types of activities with cats as with dogs (Perhaps Snowball prefers lounging in the windowsill as opposed to hiking for many hours of the day?). Cats are also either completely indoor pets or spend the daylight hours resting in the shade while being more active at night. It is still important during hot weather to make sure that your cat has plenty of access to fresh, clean water and that outdoor cats have access to shade.
Many dogs are so motivated to continue activities with us that they will not self-regulate their activity in hot weather, and cannot recognize when they are overheating, so it is important to keep a close eye on them. Be sure to take plenty of breaks for water, rest, and shade, and if you have any doubt about your dog’s safety, considering quitting for the day and getting indoors (better to be safe than sorry!). If you are taking your dog on an outing, it is a good idea to pack some supplies in case of heat stroke: A few bath towels, and a cooler with enough cold (refrigerated) water that you could pour over your pet and use to soak the towels.
If you see signs of early heat stroke, discontinue your current activity and encourage your pet to take brief sips of water and find a shaded area to cool off. If signs appear life-threatening be sure to get your pet in the car, and drape the towels (soaked in the water you packed) over your pet’s body. Run the air conditioning in the car and get to your veterinarian or an emergency clinic as soon as possible. If you do not have cold water available, don’t spend a lot of time looking for it – just call and come to the clinic right away. It is important to have your pet evaluated and treated by your veterinarian. Trying to stabilize an animal’s body temperature can be tricky and it is possible to become overzealous and cool your pet TOO much in your attempt to re-establish a balance in body temperature.
We at SportsVet want everyone, people and pets alike, to have a great summer! A few simple precautions can help prevent heat stroke in our pets and keep the fun rolling for years to come.