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Metairie Small Animal Hospital (MSAH)

How Hot is Too Hot? Heat Stress in Pets

A Brown Dog Playing in a Plastic Pool

Summer’s almost here! It’s time to sweat (or hide in the air conditioning). But your dog can’t sweat, and your cat only sweats between his toes. So how do you tell if your pet is starting to get overheated? It’s not quite the same with them as it is for us, but there are signs that, once you know them, will seem obvious. National Heat Awareness Day is Monday, May 23, and all over the Gulf South (and other places!) our temperatures are rising as fast as summer is coming, so it’s a good time to make sure we know how to tell if our pets are experiencing heat stress and what to do if they are.

Short-faced dogs are predisposed to heat stress, so be sure to keep them cool!

Of course, we all know that pets should never be left in hot cars during the summer, and, while that’s the most common cause of pet heatstroke, it isn’t the only one. In fact, your pets can become heat stressed while playing outside (especially if they just don’t know when to quit!), stay in un-air-conditioned buildings, or spend too much time in the direct sun. Additionally, short-nosed breeds of dogs and cats (like pugs, Boston terriers, and Persians) and overweight or obese pets are especially predisposed to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Symptoms of Heat Stress

Normal body temperature for dogs and cats ranges from 101 – 102.5. Anything higher than 103.5 is considered hyperthermia and may indicate heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Of course, most of us don’t carry around rectal thermometers to check our pets’ temperatures, so there are other signs that can alert us of heat stress!

The first thing to remember is that if we’re feeling hot, it’s likely our pets are too. After all, how would you like to walk around in the summer heat in a fur coat you couldn’t remove? The first reaction to heat that your dog or cat will display is panting. Of course, panting is normal for dogs – less so for cats – and is usually sufficient to cool them off. However, if panting isn’t enough to dissipate the excess heat, Fido and Fluffy will begin to act restless and distressed, looking for cooler locations. The panting won’t stop, though – it will, in fact, get faster. In addition, your dog and cat may begin salivating excessively, will have bright red gums, and their heart rates and body temperatures will begin to rise. They may also vomit and have diarrhea. These are the early signs of heatstroke. If no relief is found, symptoms can worsen quickly. As this happens, they may have seizures, go into shock, or fall into a coma. In addition, their gums may go from bright red to purple or blue (a sign of cyanosis). If these symptoms are not treated immediately, death can result.

First Aid, Treatment, and Recovery

If you catch your pet’s heat stress early (in the panting and restless stage), the most obvious remedy is to move him to a cooler location and provide lots of cool water to drink. At this stage, your pet will likely be fine, though you should continue to watch him to make sure he’s cooling down and not displaying any other signs of stress. Anything more than panting and restlessness need more extensive first aid and immediate veterinary attention.

If you didn’t catch the heat stress early, you can get your dog or cat with lukewarm water and increase airflow around him to help bring down his body temperature while (or immediately before) transporting him to the veterinarian. Don’t ever use very cold water in these situations – cooling your pet too quickly will make things worse and cause other complications! Placing towels soaked in cool/lukewarm water on your pet, particularly between his legs and across his neck, will also help. Don’t let your first aid delay getting your pet to the doctor, though. Heatstroke can be life-threatening – causing organ failure, brain swelling, blood clotting disorders, and more – so it’s very important to get your pet medical attention immediately. While pets that are quickly treated can recover, prolonged or severe heat stress can have long-term consequences that need to be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Hopefully, we all know that preventing heat stress, whether it leads to heat exhaustion or heatstroke, is far better than having to treat it. The best ways to do that include making sure your pet has shaded, cool places to retreat to during the summer, plentiful cool water to drink, and isn’t encouraged to overdo it during the hottest times of day. Also, leaving your pets at home when you go out makes it impossible to accidentally leave them in hot cars! If all your best efforts fail, though, remember that we’re here to help.

Based on an article that first appeared at Metairie Small Animal Hospital