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Heat Stroke in Pets

How heat stroke can happen to your pet and how to prevent it


The time of year has come when the weather beckons us to frolic in the sun! Our furry companions love sharing the warm weather with us; however, the summer heat can pose serious risk to your pet.

What is heat stroke? Heat stroke happens when your dog’s ability to cool herself off becomes overwhelmed by heat gain. This can happen very quickly! If it is left untreated it can lead to organ damage and even death. The technical definition of heat stroke is when the body temperature rises over 106 degrees with no inflammation or infection to account for the extremely high temperature.  

How and why does heat stroke happen to pets? Normally there are mechanisms in a pet’s body that balance heat gain and loss. Dogs, for example, can dissipate excess body heat through the respiratory tract by panting heavily as well as by convection and radiation. Dogs are very different from people in the way they handle heat. They cannot sweat like we can, although they do have a type of sweat gland in their foot pads that is used in cooling.

What signs tell us our pet is experiencing heat stroke? Your pet may seem dull, weak, wobbly and faint. In severe cases, your pet can have tremors or seizures. He may have a very rapid heart rate and his gums may appear bright red. If you think you are witnessing any of these signs, you should cool off your pet (details below) and immediately seek emergency veterinary care.  

What can happen if I fail to seek emergency care? When your dog’s core body temperature rises too high too quickly, the hypothalamus (the temperature regulator in the brain) is unable to gain control. This can lead to sudden drastic spikes in body temperature, which can lead to severe thermal damage to body organs. The bloodstream and the ability to clot blood are also affected. Your dog’s liver, kidneys, central nervous system, heart and gastrointestinal tract are all impacted. Heat stroke is a true shock situation and requires rapid intervention to save the pet’s life.

What should be done if your pet is suffering from heat stroke? Move your pet out of the heat and wet your dog’s body with cool (not cold) water, then head to your veterinarian. Most dogs will require IV fluids to treat for shock and support vital organs. Never cool a dog with ice cold water: this will actually make things worse, causing the blood vessels to constrict and keep their core body heat from escaping. Your pet’s veterinarian may need lab tests to check the status of her kidneys, liver and her ability to clot her blood. If your dog has experienced true heat stroke she may need to stay in the hospital for several days undergoing treatment.

Is there anything that might predispose a dog to heat stroke? While it can happen to any pet, some breeds are at higher risk. Brachycephalic (flat face) pets such as English Bulldogs and Pugs do not have the cooling mechanism from a long nose that a dog such as a Collie enjoys. Underlying heart disease, collapsing trachea, laryngeal paralysis and even obesity can predispose to heat stroke.  

What can be done to help prevent heat stroke? The best defense is common sense and staying in tune with how your dog is behaving. Our canine companions love to exercise and love to please us. We cannot rely on them to let us know when they are overdoing it, as they may pay no attention to the cues their body is giving them. Don’t leave your dog unattended in cars, especially during warm or hot weather. Keep plenty of cool water with you when you take your dogs in the heat. If your pet has been inactive during the winter and/or is overweight, she should gradually work up to running with long walks first.

Let’s all keep our canine companions safe and cool this summer. If you ever are worried that your pet is in danger of heat stroke, rush her to your vet or your local pet emergency clinic for immediate attention.

Cam Hornsby, DVM is the medical director of Nashville Pet Emergency Clinic. Devon Blackburn is a veterinary technician and the safety and training coordinator.

Nashville Pet Emergency Clinic
12th Avenue South: (615) 383-2600
Rivergate: (615) 859-3778
Murfreesboro: (615) 890-1259
Open evenings at 6pm and on weekends and holidays.


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