Summer is for friends and family, and because your pet is obviously both, you will want to include them in all your summer activities. Haskell Veterinary Clinic knows you would never intentionally put your pet in harm’s way, but each year countless owners unknowingly put their pets at risk for heat-related injuries, and potentially fatal heatstroke. We want to help you prevent this from happening to your pet.

What is heatstroke in pets?

Body temperature is a balance between the internal heat of your pet’s natural physiologic processes and ambient heat. When the surrounding environment is warmer than a pet’s internal body temperature, their body begins to absorb, instead of dissipate, the heat. As their natural cooling mechanisms, such as panting and the redirection of blood flow to the skin’s surface, begin to fail to keep up, heatstroke occurs. Heatstroke is a veterinary emergency, but a preventable one. Let’s examine what commonly causes heatstroke, the signs, treatment, and how you can protect your pet. The common causes include:

  • Pets outdoors in the heat — All pets have a thermoregulatory zone, a range of environmental temperatures where they can comfortably maintain body temperature without expending energy. The range varies according to species, individual pet, health status, age, and anatomy. When the temperatures exceed that range, pets begin to pant. Panting is a method of evaporative cooling used by both cats and dogs—although panting cats should be considered an emergency, because panting in cats is rare. Direct sun, high humidity, and dehydration negatively impact the effectiveness of panting.

Never leave your pet unattended outside during warm weather. If your pet joins you outdoors, watch their activity level, provide constant access to cool, fresh water and shade, and allow them frequent opportunities to go indoors.

  • Pets exercising in the heat — Physical exercise in hot weather can rapidly lead to heatstroke. Avoid outdoor activity with your pet in the early to mid afternoon, when the heat is at its peak. Do not expect your dog to “tell you” if they are OK with the heat—some dogs will walk, jog, or play until they literally exhaust themselves and become ill. Exercise your pet only in the early morning or late evening hours, and reduce exercise intensity.

Exercising dogs are also at risk for paw pad burns, if they have prolonged contact with hot asphalt, concrete, or artificial turf. These surfaces can reach alarmingly high temperatures, and can retain their heat long after the sun goes down. Protect your pet’s paws by checking the surface temperature with your hand. If you cannot maintain contact for seven seconds, the surface is unsafe for your dog. Stick to the grass and reschedule exercise for cooler times of day.

  • Pets in hot, parked vehicles — You may love taking your pet with you as you run errands around town, or on a family road trip, but never leave a pet in a parked automobile. Vehicles are veritable greenhouses that heat up rapidly. Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association show that interior car temperatures on a sunny, 70- degree day can jump nearly 20 degrees in only 10 minutes, and will continue to climb as time elapses. Cracking the windows has little to no impact on interior temperature. Pets left in parked cars are prisoners to the heat, and many begin to panic, which, tragically, accelerates their distress. Many cases of heatstroke and deaths of pets left in cars occur each year.

If you find yourself tempted to say, “I’ll be right back,” to your furry co-pilot, stop. The time you think you will save by “running into” a store may be enough time to cause your pet devastating harm.

  • Brachycephalic pets anywhere, anytime — Flat-nosed (i.e., brachycephalic) dog breeds, such as pugs, bulldogs, and shih tzus, are at high risk for heatstroke, because their shortened muzzles and narrow airways make them less capable of self-cooling by panting. The resistance of air flow, and lack of a nasal cavity where air can be cooled and moistened, causes these pets to struggle in the heat far more quickly. Brachycephalic dogs should be restricted to indoor exercise during summer heat, and monitored closely when outdoors.

What are heatstroke signs and treatment in pets?

Heatstroke can be addressed quickly when owners know the signs, which include:

  • Excessive panting or drooling
  • Red gums
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Weakness and incoordination
  • Lethargy, unresponsiveness
  • Collapse

Pets may initially pant and seek shade or water, and appear restless or anxious. This is the time to act, before the situation becomes critical. Take your pet to a cool, preferably air conditioned, location, offer them cool water to drink, and wet them down with cool water. Call us at Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic, because heatstroke is always an emergency.

Heatstroke requires gradual lowering of your pet’s body temperature, to reduce internal damage. Injury from heatstroke is not always immediate, and pets who recover at home still should be seen by a veterinarian for a full evaluation and bloodwork. Your pet may need hospitalization for our veterinary team to monitor their organ function, and correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Heatstroke can cause death several days after the event, so prompt treatment is critical.

The best heatstroke treatment is prevention, so always be proactive—not reactive—about your pet’s heat safety. For additional information about protecting your pet, or if you have concerns they may be affected by the summer heat, contact Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic.