Recognizing and preventing heatstroke in animals

Summer heat is still going strong, so let’s talk about a condition that many pets must deal with around this time of the year. Heatstroke in animals is a health hazard that we’ve touched on before. This time we’ll look into the causes of this overheating, with an emphasis on preventative measures.

Pet owners and transporters alike might find this information useful. After all, keeping an animal safe, healthy, and comfortable should always be a team effort.

What is heatstroke?

High body temperature can be caused by various factors. Fever, for example, is a well-known symptom of inflammation. But sometimes, temperatures keep going up and up without an obvious underlining issue. The body’s heat-dissipating systems become unable to deal with the environmental conditions, causing a whole series of malfunctions.

This results in what’s commonly known as heatstroke – a state of persistently elevated temperature which the body is unable to regulate.

If left unmanaged, heatstroke can have serious consequences in animals and humans alike. These vary from fainting spells to organ failure, and can even have a fatal outcome. Fortunately, this issue is relatively easy to address before it escalates, and even easier to prevent.

Animals and excess heat

One of the few physical advantages humans have over animals is our ability to dissipate excess heat. Cats, dogs, and the rest of our furry friends have a harder time doing this. While we sweat through the skin they must rely on their paws, which are much less efficient. Panting helps, but comes with its own set of problems.

Most pet owners are aware of the fact that certain dog breeds are especially prone to heat exhaustion. Bulldogs, pugs, and other brachycephalic (short-nosed) animals often find their airways obstructed. These respiratory problems make panting more difficult, causing heat to dissipate more slowly and eventually resulting in heatstroke.

It’s less well known that many feline breeds suffer from the same issue. Short-snouted cats such as the Persian or the Himalayan are also at an elevated risk of heatstroke.

All this is not to say that owners of other pet breeds can discount the danger posed by overheating. The metabolism of almost any animal can struggle to regulate body temperature. Very young, very old, or overweight cats and dogs of any breed require special attention.

Recognizing the signs

When heatstroke does occur, it’s important to determine how serious the situation is at the moment. This helps us decide which steps to take immediately, and how best to involve the veterinarian.

Here’s a short list of symptoms associated with heatstroke in animals:

  • Excessive panting/hyperventilation: compare these to the animal usual breathing rate
  • Elevated pulse/heartbeat: above 100 bpm for large dogs, 140 for small dogs, 220 for cats
  • Elevated body temperature: above 103 degrees Fahrenheit for most cats and dogs
  • Anxiousness: the pet might pace nervously for no apparent reason, or…
  • Listlessness: … exhibit lethargic and unresponsive behavior instead
  • Dry, dark gums: possibly indicative of acute dehydration
  • Vomiting or seizures: possibly indicative of acute heat stress

Whenever these symptoms occur, take steps immediately to either preempt heatstroke or minimize its impact. Bring the pets into a cool, shaded environment and offer fresh water. If they refuse to drink or their condition deteriorates, wrap them in wet towels and find the nearest vet. See below for further details on ways to prevent and/or ameliorate heatstroke.

Also keep in mind that most of the symptoms outlined above vary in intensity over time. Only by monitoring the pet closely can we ascertain how well they’re handling the heat.

Heatstroke prevention tips

While it’s essential to be able to recognize the signs of heatstroke and react accordingly, it’s just as important to take steps toward preventing it. By following these simple guidelines, any pet owner or transporter can minimize the chances of overheating.

First off, reduce the animals’ exposure to sunlight. This advice can be difficult to follow, but try to keep to the shade when taking them out for a walk. If possible, keep them indoors or otherwise sheltered when the sun is at its zenith.

Keep the pets supplied with plenty of fresh, cool water at all times. Make sure that drinking water isn’t too cold, though. Many (but not all!) animals also enjoy being gently sprayed with a few droplets. Wiping them down with a cool, wet towel can sometimes ease the pressure as well.

On the other hand, too much moisture can add to the problem – try to minimize humidity in the air. This is easiest to achieve by keeping the animals in a well-ventilated environment, using fans as required.

And finally, the big one again: do not leave pets alone inside a car! No, not even for a little while. With the A/C off, the interior of a vehicle can heat up much quicker than you’d imagine. Here’s a helpful video illustrating exactly that:

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