Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia (core body temperature elevated above the normal range) resulting in thermal injury to tissues. Heatstroke occurs when heat generation exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat. Heatstroke is a very serious condition: it can lead to multiple organ failure and animals can die quickly if not treated. All animals are susceptible to heatstroke so you need to make sure that you take active steps to prevent it.
How should you treat a pet with heatstroke?
- Instigate emergency first aid to help normalise your pet's body temperature. Apply or spray tepid/cool water onto their fur/skin, followed by fanning to maximise heat loss. Don't use ice-cold water or ice as this may exacerbate the problem. Wetting down the area around your pet can also help.
- Take your pet to the nearest vet immediately. Heatstroke is a life-threatening emergency, so even if your pet looks like they may be recovering or you just suspect they might have suffered heatstroke they should still always be checked by a vet. Heatstroke can cause organ damage which might not appear straight away. Given the seriousness of this condition, it is better to be safe than sorry and have your pet checked out.
What are the signs of heatstroke?
Signs may vary between individuals, but commonly include:
- Relentless panting (increases as heatstroke progresses)
- Drooling, salivating
- Agitation, restlessness
- Very red or pale gums
- Bright red tongue
- Increased heart rate
- Breathing distress
- Vomiting, Diarrhoea (possibly with blood)
- Signs of mental confusion, delirium
- Dizziness, staggering
- Lethargy, weakness
- Muscle tremors
- Collapsing and lying down
- Little to no urine production
What are the main predisposing factors?
- A warm/hot, humid environment
- Lack of adequate ventilation/air flow
- Lack of adequate shade
- Lack of adequate drinking water
- Excessive exercise
How do you avoid heatstroke for your pets?
You can help to prevent heatstroke by ensuring your pets are kept in appropriate environmental conditions and being aware of the symptoms so action can be taken swiftly.
- Provide your pets with a cool, shaded area with good ventilation at all times - adequate ventilation and air flow are important as many animals cool down via evaporative cooling (panting) which requires adequate air flow.
- Make sure they have plenty of clean fresh water and extra water sources in case of spillage.
- Bring your pets indoors on hot, humid days if the indoor environment is cooler for the animal (e.g. air-conditioning, child-safe fans, open windows where possible and shade).
- Do not exercise your pets in hot, humid conditions. On hot days try to walk your dog very early in the morning or late in the evening when it is cool, and avoid the hottest part of the day. Avoid walking on hot sand, concrete, asphalt areas or any other areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade.
- Do not leave your dog in a car or vehicle - even when the windows are down dogs can still overheat and die. The high temperatures in the car combined with inadequate ventilation or air flow mean that the dog cannot adequately thermoregulate leaving them vulnerable to overheating. Animals in these conditions suffer horribly - please don't risk it. See Just 6 minutes and Dogs Die in Hot Cars for more information.
- Small animals including rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, birds, rats and mice are highly susceptible to heatstroke. These animals are often confined in cages and hutches and are unable to move away to cooler places, so they need to be moved into a cool, shaded and well-ventilated area in hot weather. They also require clean, fresh drinking water at all times. On very hot days you may need to bring them into a cool place indoors, for example the laundry.
How do vets help pets with heatstroke?
Vets are trained to assess the severity of the heatstroke and then provide emergency medical treatment as required. They will check your pet’s body temperature and vital signs and then instigate emergency treatment which may include:
- Putting your pet on a drip (intravenous fluids)
- Cooling treatments e.g. cooling enemas
- Supplemental oxygen
- Medication as required
- Blood tests to check organ function
- Ongoing monitoring and treatment as required
More tips for taking care of pets in hot weather
- Dogs travelling on the back of utes are susceptible to burning their footpads/in contact body parts on the ute tray - many of which can get very hot in the sun. Owners need to cover the trays with a suitable material to prevent this problem and provide a shaded area.
- Owners need to be aware of sunburn particularly in pets with white, non-pigmented skin and a white-coloured coat.
Other exacerbating factors can include:
- Brachycephalic breeds (short-nosed and flat-faced) e.g. Pugs, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, Pekingese as well as Persian and Himalayan cats.
- Thick/long hair coat
- Extremes in age (young/old)
- Excessive exercise
- Respiratory disease/breathing problems - laryngeal paralysis, collapsing trachea
- Heart problems/Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological disease