Heatstroke or heat stress is a state of hyperthermia (elevated core body temperature 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 from heatstroke.
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
What are the signs of heatstroke?
Signs may vary between individuals, but commonly include:
- Incessant panting (increases as heat stroke 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
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 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.
- Provide plenty of clean fresh water and extra water sources in case of spillage.
- Bring animals 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).
- Small animals including rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, birds, rats and mice are highly susceptible to heat stress (which can be fatal). These animals are often confined in cages and hutches and are unable to move away to cooler places. Owners need to move these animals 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.
- Do not exercise animals in hot, humid conditions. On hot days try to walk your dog very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon when it is cool, and avoid the hottest part of the day.
- Do not leave your dog in a car or vehicle - even when the windows are down dogs can still overheat and die. One study found that even on mild days the temperature inside the vehicle rises rapidly to dangerous levels. When the ambient temperature is 22°C the temperature inside a car can rise to over 47°C in 60 minutes. The high temperatures in the car combined with inadequate ventilation/air flow mean that the dog cannot thermo-regulate leaving them vulnerable to over-heating which can be fatal. Animals in these conditions suffer horribly - please don't risk it. See RSPCA NSW for more information.
- Avoid hot sand, concrete, asphalt areas or any other areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade.
How should you treat a pet with heatstroke?
- First step is to instigate Emergency First Aid at home - the aim of first aid is to help normalise body temperature.
- Apply or spray tepid/cool water onto the animal’s fur/skin. Followed by fanning of the pet to maximise heat loss.
- Wetting down the area around your pet can also help.
- Don't use ice-cold water or ice as this may exacerbate the problem.
- Then take your pet to the nearest Vet immediately.
- Heat stroke is an life threatening emergency - always see a vet. Even if your pet looks like they may be recovering or you just suspect they might have heat stroke they should still always be checked by a vet. Given the seriousness of this condition, it is better to be safe than sorry and have your pet checked out by a vet.
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 especially in pets with white, non-pigmented skin and a white-coloured coat.
All animals are susceptible to heat stroke so owners need to make sure that they take active steps to prevent it.
Other exacerbating factors can include:
- Brachycephalic breeds (short-nosed/flat-faced) e.g. Pugs, English bull dogs, French bulldogs, Pekingese and Persian and Himalayan cats.
- Respiratory disease/breathing problems - laryngeal paralysis, collapsing trachea
- Thick/long hair coat
- Heart problems/Cardiovascular disease
- Extremes in age (young/old)
- Neurological disease
- Excessive exercise
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