Avoid Heatstroke in Pets by Helping Them Keep Their Cool

BeachBy now, most of us are thinking ahead to fall—cooler temperatures, autumn breezes and holidays around the corner. But it’s still hot and sticky outside for many of us, so don’t overlook the serious dangers that late summer heat can pose for your pets.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency and should be treated immediately upon the recognition of symptoms. According to veterinarian Eddie Garcia, clinic director at Veterinary Medical Clinic in Tampa, Florida, heatstroke occurs when a dog’s body absorbs more heat than it can dissipate, either through exercise or exposure.

"Heat exhaustion is a result of a domino-like effect resulting from high temperatures and humidity," says Garcia. "Heat has a detrimental effect on body proteins resulting in the death of cells. Dehydration thickens the blood causing slowed circulation and subsequent lack of oxygen. This ultimately leads to severe organ damage or failure."

All of these effects can take place very quickly once a pet becomes overheated.

Heatstroke in pets often results from overexertion in hot, humid weather, being left in an unattended automobile or being left outside without water on a sunny summer day. But even simple activities such as direct sun exposure or leisurely walking can cause the same medical crisis.

Garcia reminds us that our pets' heat tolerances are much different from ours. "A dog may be susceptible to heatstroke under conditions that may not seem uncomfortable, much less life threatening to humans," he says. "One reason dogs are more susceptible to the effects of heat than humans is because their skin is different."

We humans have a distinct advantage over our pets when it comes to coping with heat. Our bodies are cooled when thousands of glands under the skin produce sweat which cools blood temperature as the moisture evaporates.

Dogs and cats only have sweat glands in their noses and pads of feet. Very little cooling takes place with minimal evaporating surfaces, so they rely on panting to cool down. Panting allows air to move through the nasal passages, which picks up excess heat from the body. As it is expelled through the mouth, the extra heat leaves with it. Although it is an efficient means of controlling body heat, it is severely limited in areas of high humidity or when the animal is in close quarters.

A dog or cat’s furry coat also plays a role in cooling. Fur offers protection from heat by insulating the body and providing a buffer from direct sunlight on their skin.

Fortunately, a heatstroke tragedy is completely preventable if pet owners understand the risks and learn to take precautions or read the danger signs.

Take precautions:

  • Limit activity and maintain pets at a healthy weight. Keep walks at a gentle pace and if your pet seems tired, rest a bit or stop the activity. Limit longer walks to early morning or evenings when the sun is not direct and temperatures are more comfortable. Never exercise pets in the middle of the day.
  • Never leave your pet or child in the car! It is not only against the law, but also very dangerous. The sun can raise the temperature inside your car to 120 degrees or higher in a matter of minutes, even with the windows down.
  • Keep pets inside on hot days. Even if your yard has shady areas, they can shift throughout the day.
  • Whether inside or out, be sure your pet has clean cool water to drink at all times. Check the bowl several times a day and keep it filled. If you go for a walk or an outing, take plenty of water along.
  • Keep pets well groomed. This helps their fur do what it is intended to do—protect from sun and insulate from heat. If the coat is matted and tangled, the fur may actually trap heat.

Signs of Heatstroke:

  • Rapid or excessive panting
  • Bright red or purple tongue
  • Red or pale gums
  • Glazed eyes or staring
  • Anxiousness or restlessness
  • Depression or weakness
  • Confusion
  • Trouble standing or walking
  • Collapse
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

It’s imperative that you act quickly and calmly if you suspect your pet has heatstroke. Immediately get him or her indoors or into a shady area. Lower the animal’s body temperature by applying towels soaked in cool water to the hairless areas of the body. Offer your pet small amounts of cool water and get him or her to your veterinarian immediately. Once your pet is in the vet’s care, treatment may include further cooling techniques, fluids and medication.

For additional information about pets and heat, visit VeterinaryPartner.com, a terrific veterinary resource for pet owners.

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Written by:
Kristen Levine, pet lifestyle expert

August 21, 2009

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