By Dr. Becker
Just as temperatures will climb over the next few months, so will the risk of overheating in pets. And inevitably, far too many precious dogs and even a few cats will succumb to heatstroke this summer. Most cases of pets dying from heat exposure are not reported, but estimates are that several hundred dogs suffer this slow, agonizing fate every year.
A pet's death from heatstroke is an entirely preventable event – a fact that often creates unbearable grief and guilt in guardians who've lost a beloved companion in this manner. But the good news is that by following a few simple guidelines for caring for your furry charge during hot weather, you can keep your pet safe and in good health all summer long.
Learn to Recognize the Symptoms of Overheating
Heatstroke is caused by a dangerous elevation in an animal's body temperature. While it most often occurs in dogs left in cars during the summer months, it can also happen in late spring and the first weeks of summer if a pet is exposed to high temperatures before he or she has acclimated to the heat.
On an 85°F day it takes only 10 minutes for the interior of a parked car to climb to 102°F. In a half hour, it can reach 120°F. And leaving windows partially open doesn't drop the temperature inside the vehicle.
Symptoms of overheating include:
Heavy panting or rapid breathing Elevated body temperature Excessive thirst Weakness and collapse Glazed eyes Increased pulse and heartbeat Vomiting, bloody diarrhea Seizures Bright or dark red tongue and gums Excessive drooling Staggering, stumbling Unconsciousness
In addition to hot vehicles, other contributors to pet overheating include humid conditions, lack of drinking water, obesity, and overexertion. Some pets are at higher risk for heat-related illness than others, including brachycephalic breeds (dogs and cats with flat faces and short noses), older pets, puppies and kittens, animals that are ill or have a chronic health condition, pets not used to warm weather, and any pet left outside in hot weather.
How Overheating Becomes Life-Threatening
Heatstroke is the inevitable result once a cat's rectal temperature reaches or exceeds 105°F, and a dog's reaches or exceeds 109°F. The cells of the animal's body start to rapidly die off. The brain swells, causing seizures. Lack of blood flow to the GI tract causes ulcers. Dehydration leads to irreversible kidney damage. And all these catastrophic events take place within a matter of minutes.
In the early stages of overheating, it can be difficult to assess your pet's condition, especially since it's normal for dogs to pant when they're warm or exerting themselves. I recommend you ask your veterinarian to show you how to take your pet's temperature rectally, and invest in a digital thermometer that is designated for pet use only.
It's extremely important for pet owners to take every precaution to prevent overheating, because by the time an animal is showing signs of heatstroke, it's often too late to save him.
How to Prevent Your Pet from Overheating
Provide plenty of fresh clean drinking water at all times. If your pet will be outside for any length of time in warm weather, she should have access to complete shade. Dogs can be encouraged to play in the sprinkler, or can be gently hosed down with cool water to prevent overheating.
While I typically do not recommend shaving your pet, if yours has a long coat, spends time outdoors during hot weather, and doesn't object to a shorter coat, consider giving her a summer cut. Just take care not to go any shorter than an inch, because her coat provides protection from sunburn.
Exercise your dog early in the morning or after sunset, during the coolest parts of the day. Don't overdo exercise or play sessions, regardless of the time of day. And if it gets to be 90°F, your pet should be indoors where it's cool.
Don't walk or exercise your pet on hot pavement. Not only can it burn his paws, but the heat rising from concrete or asphalt can quickly overheat an animal that lives close to the ground.
And finally, never under any circumstances leave your pet alone in a parked car on a warm day. Leave her at home where she can remain cool, hydrated, and safe. Leaving a pet unattended in a vehicle in extreme heat or cold is a criminal act in several states and municipalities. Most statutes have rescue provisions that allow certain individuals – for example police officers, firefighters, animal control officers, store employees -- to do whatever is necessary to rescue an animal trapped in a vehicle in extreme temperatures.
If You Think Your Pet Is Overheated…
If you think your pet (or any pet) is experiencing heatstroke, you must take immediate action. Move the animal to a cool area, preferably with air conditioning. At a minimum you should get him out of direct sunlight and to a shady spot.
If your pet is able to stand, or is at least conscious, offer him small amounts of water to drink and take his temperature rectally if possible. If the temp is 104°F or lower, continue to offer small drinks of water. Take care not to give a large amount of water all at once, which can cause vomiting that leads to dehydration. When your pet seems more comfortable, call your veterinarian for instructions on what to do next.
If your pet is unable to stand without assistance, is unresponsive, or is having seizures, first check for breathing and a heartbeat. At the same time, someone should call the closest veterinary hospital to let them know you're on your way with your pet.
Immediately start cooling your pet down by soaking her body with cool (not cold) water, using a hose, wet towels, or any other available source of cool water. Concentrate the water on her head, neck and the areas underneath her front and back legs. If possible, try to pour some water over her tongue, but don't let it run into her throat as it could get into the lungs. Never put water into the mouth of a pet that can't swallow on her own.
Put a fan on your pet if possible, as it will speed up the cooling process. Take her temperature if you can. After a few minutes, recheck her temp. If it's at or below 104°F, stop the cooling process to prevent blood clotting or a too-low body temperature. Get your pet to a veterinary clinic immediately, even if she seems to be recovering.