Preventing Heat Stroke: How to Keep Pets Cool & Safe

Preventing Heat Stroke: How to keep your pets cool this summer

No matter where you are in the world, heat waves usually roll in at one time or another. For those of us in Western Canada, that time is now. It’s hot. Super hot. Our daytime highs have been between 40°C and 47°C. We’re breaking records. Environment Canada and local Medical Health Officers are expecting “an increase in health and safety risks from heat and are advising the public to take precautions.”

That goes for your fur babies, too. Heat stroke is extremely dangerous for everyone ... including your pets. 

As a loving pet parent, we know you’re doing your best to keep your entire family as cool and comfortable as possible. Today, we’re going to talk about ways to keep your pets cool during the summer heat.

But first, let’s take a look at the severity of heat stroke and the dangerous impact it can have on your pets.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. In humans, this happens when your body temp rises quickly and the act of sweating is no longer enough to cool you down. The same concept applies to animals.

Can pets get heat stroke?

Yes! In fact, pets are at a higher risk for heat stroke than humans because a) they’re wearing fur coats, and b) they can’t sweat. Not in the same way humans can, that is.

Dogs and cats have some sweat glands in their paw pads, but it’s not enough to regulate body temp in extreme heat. Fortunately, they have other ways of regulating body temperature

When dogs get too hot, they pant. It’s the primary way they release excess heat from their bodies (in the form of water vapor) by way of the tongue, mouth and upper respiratory tract. It sounds like a lot of work, but panting actually takes very little energy, thanks to the elasticity of your dog's lungs and airway. 

But when the mercury rises too high too fast, panting might not be enough to keep your dog cool. That’s when their secondary self-cooling method kicks in - vasodilation. The dilation of blood vessels brings blood to the surface of the skin to lower body temp. 

WARNING: Vasodilation may indicate that your dog is experiencing heat stroke.

Great -- but how do I know what my dog's blood vessels are doing?

  • Check his pulse. If his heart rate spikes or becomes irregular (tachycardic), call your vet. 

How to check your pet's pulse:

Count the beats for 10 seconds.
Multiply that number by 6 to get the 
pulse rate in beats per minute.

What's a normal heart rate?

Small dogs and puppies typically have heart rates between 120 -160 beats per minute. Heart rates in dogs over 30 lbs range from 60 - 120 bpm.

Cats tend to have heart rates between 160 - 180 bpm, but will vary depending on age, weight and fitness.  

What are the symptoms of heat stroke in dogs?

Dogs with heat stroke most commonly present with listlessness, collapse, hypersalivation (drooling), excessive panting, bloody diarrhea, or vomiting.

Since panting is the number one way dogs regulate body temperature (keeping themselves cool), excessive panting is the most obvious sign of heat stroke.

Other heat stroke symptoms in dogs may include:

  • Excessive drooling
  • Extra thick saliva 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Warm to the touch
  • Red “flushed” skin near the ears, muzzle or belly
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea, with or without blood
  • Weakness
  • Incoordination or stumbling
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Sudden collapse
  • Seizure or coma
  • Body temperature higher than 104°F

A dog’s body temperature is normally between 100.2°F and 102.8°F (37.8°C - 39.3°C). 

When your dog's built-in cooling systems are overwhelmed, he can quickly become overheated, which can cause dehydration and heat stress (which can lead to heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rashes and heat stroke).

If his temp rises above 104°F, he is at serious risk for heat stroke. Call your vet immediately.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke in cats?

Cats cool down differently than dogs. Yes, they pant, but only as a last resort. Just like dogs and humans, cats will always look for a cool place to rest when it's hot. If she spends most of her time in the basement, on cool tile floors or hiding behind the cold porcelain toilet ... she's too hot.

Also like dogs, cats have sweat glands in their paw pads. But on super hot days, she may start licking obsessively. When saliva evaporates from her fur, it provides a cooling sensation (similar to how human sweating works).

And when all else fails, she may begin to pant. Similar to a dog's panting, this rapid breathing allows saliva to evaporate from your cat's tongue and mouth, helping them to cool down.

Signs of heat stroke in cats include:

  • heavy panting
  • racing pulse
  • drooling
  • excessive grooming
  • redness of the tongue
  • vomiting
  • staggering
  • lethargy
  • collapse

A cat’s body temperature is normally between 100.5°F and 102.5°F (38.1°C - 39.2°C). If your cat's temperature approaches 105°F (40.5°C) call your vet immediately, as she may be experiencing heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition. It can cause central nervous system damage, circulatory collapse and death. If you suspect your pet is overheated, follow these cooling tips. If your pet’s temperature does not return to a safe level despite your efforts, call your vet immediately.

How to prevent heat stroke in pets 

  1. Travel: Never (EVER) leave your pet in the car on a warm day. It doesn’t matter if you’re parked in the shade and it doesn’t matter if you’ve cracked open a window. 

FACT: Just two minutes of time in a hot car could result in a temperature spike from 80°F to 94.3°F. 

FACT: With outside air temperatures of 80°, the interior temperature of a car in the sun will reach 120° in as little as one hour.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise:

  • 20 degrees in 10 minutes
  • 50 degrees in 60 minutes (even when outside air temps are only in the 70s!)

“The inside of a car acts like a greenhouse, where actual temperatures inside the vehicle can reach 120°F in minutes and approach 150°F in as little as an hour!” - weather.gov

Pets left in hot cars can suffer severe brain or organ damage and die. 

If you see a pet trapped inside a potentially hot vehicle, call local law enforcement right away. 

  1. Walks: When the temp climbs above 80°F, skip the walks altogether if you can. Instead, opt for quick backyard potty trips. If that’s not possible, save longer dog walks for early morning or later in the evening when the sun isn’t as intense. Remember to bring water for your dog and offer it to him frequently.
  1. Shade: Whether you’re out for a walk with Fido or you're hanging out with Fluffy on the couch, try to keep your pets in the shade, safely away from the sun's hot rays. NEVER leave pets unattended outside in the heat. 

  2. Haircut: Try a brush cut! Lots of dogs (and even some cats) will welcome the cooling effects of a new summer haircut. Shearing down a few layers of fur can really help your pet keep cooler in the heat. For dogs who love the water (like retrievers, labs, poodles and shepherds), a shorter haircut can help minimize hotspots, too.

  3. Hydrate: Encourage your pets to drink lots of fresh water when it’s hot. Panting, vasodilation and even sweating through their paw pads are all ways your pet naturally cools himself -- and they all require him to expel water … which can cause dehydration and lead to heat stroke.

How to cool overheated pets

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to prevent overheating, it happens to the best of us. Pets, too. Here are some things you can do to help lower your pet’s body temperature

  1. First thing’s first -- get him out of the heat as soon as possible. If you have access to air conditioning, get him inside. If not, get him out of the sun and into a shady spot. If you're already inside, open the windows and close the blinds (or curtains) to make it darker.

  2. Take a dip in the water -- pool or beach, a quick dip can cool down the entire family, furry members especially. Just be careful not to over exercise your pup in the water on hot days. Sprinklers and water hoses are great, too! Well ... more for the dogs, that is. Your cat may not appreciate any of these water sports.

  3. Find cooler surfaces -- the cool grass under a shady tree is much better than the hot pavement on a sunny sidewalk. Also be careful of hot sand at the beach and hot plastic and steel at the park.

  4. Put cool wet towels over your pet’s neck, under his armpits and between his hind legs. Gently wet the outside of his ears and paw pads with cool water.

  5. If that’s not doing it, you can draw your pet a cool bath. Not cold. Cooler than his body temp (anything under 90°F will be cool enough to make him feel better). Warning: your cat may view this as a declaration of war.

  6. Encourage your pet to drink plenty of water. Sometimes, when pets are overheated, they lose interest in drinking water. That’s bad. Try giving him an ice cube instead. If that doesn’t pique his interest, you can add some flavoured broth to the water (and freeze those into cat and pupsicles for a refreshing treat!).

Pets are at great risk for heat stroke if they are:

  • very old or very young
  • overweight
  • not conditioned to prolonged exercise
  • known to have heart or respiratory disease
  • known to have laryngeal paralysis (an abnormality of their voice box cartilage)
  • dark coated
  • known to have had heat stroke in the past

Some breeds of dogs have a tougher time breathing in the heat: 

  • boxers
  • pugs
  • shih tzus
  • bulldogs
  • pekingese
  • and other dogs and cats with short muzzles

In a study of more than 900,000 UK dogs (and using historical data), Nature.com identified some additional dog breeds that are most likely to suffer from heat stroke. Among the most at-risk breeds, when compared to labrador retrievers, are:

  • chow chow (17 times more likely to suffer from heat stroke)
  • bulldog (14 times more likely)
  • French bulldog (six times)
  • French mastiff (five times)
  • greyhound (four times)
  • cavalier King Charles spaniel (three times)
  • pug (three times)
  • English springer spaniel (three times)
  • golden retriever (three times)

The study also showed that purebred dogs had twice the risk compared to crossbreeds. See the full list here.

As the warm temps continue through the summer, we hope these tips will prevent your pets from suffering the dangerous effects of heat stroke. If you have any questions about your pet’s health, feel free to give us a buzz! We’re always here to help.

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