Updated: Sep 24, 2018
We look forward to summer for many reasons. The heat isn't one of them! When the temperatures climb, people and pets are at risk for heatstroke. Whether you are hiking, walking, running, or visiting dog parks, please take some time to familiarize yourself with the signs of heatstroke to keep your pet safe and healthy.
Heatstroke occurs when a pet’s body temperature increases to 104.9 F or greater after engaging in exercise/activity or being exposed to an increased outdoor temperature. The body is designed to function at a constant body temperature and is regulated by a center within the hypothalamus located in the brain. As body temperature begins to increase in pets, a signal is sent to the brain telling the body to initiate panting. Panting is the primary means of cooling in pets; they lack the ability to sweat like we humans. Other methods to decrease body temperature include convection (finding a cool place to lie down) and changes in blood circulation (dilation of the blood vessels to cool a larger volume of blood).
In Florida, pet owners not only have to consider the temperature outside, but also the humidity level. As the humidity rises the effectiveness of cooling through panting is decreased. Certain individual factors can increase the risk of heatstroke in a pet. These include obesity, brachycephalic breeds (such as bulldogs, pugs, lhasa apsos, boston terriers, etc.), presence of a collapsing trachea or laryngeal paralysis, or previous history of heat-induced illness.
Common clinical signs of possible heatstroke include excessive panting, vomiting, collapse, ataxia (“drunken walk”), diarrhea, or seizures. Heatstroke can progress to more severe signs such as bloody vomit (hematemesis), bloody diarrhea (hematochezia), bruising on the skin, nasal bleeding, muscle tremors, and listlessness/coma. If an owner suspects heatstroke, the pet should be moved into a cool shaded area or indoors away from sunlight. The pet should then be sprayed with cool water but not extremely cold or ice water. If the water is too cold, the blood vessels may constrict and decrease the effectiveness of the cooling measures or it can result in cooling the pet too fast. Placing a fan on the pet and cool wet towels in the armpits or the groin region can also aid in bringing the body temperature down.
As soon as cooling measures are taken, contact the nearest veterinary hospital for continued treatment to manage the impact elevated body temperature will have on the liver, kidneys, heart, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems. Even with aggressive supportive care and treatment, deaths from heatstroke can approach 25-50% of affected patients.
Prevention is key! Allow your pet access to the indoors, keep water available at all times, and avoid outdoor play during the hottest hours of the day to prevent heatstroke in your pet.