Heatstroke in Pets
Heatstroke is a common, but usually preventable, problem that veterinarians diagnose and treat more often than they like during the summer months. It is a life-threatening emergency with a mortality rate between 25% and 50% despite appropriate and even intensive care.
Dogs and cats lose heat through radiation and convection (movement of cooler air over the surface of the body), conduction (laying on a cool surface) and evaporation (panting). As the environmental temperature approaches normal body temperature for the dog and cat (100 – 102), panting becomes the primary way that dogs and cats dissipate heat from their body. If temperatures become extreme and/or humidity is high, even panting becomes ineffective in helping pets cool off.
Factors that could predispose dogs to heat stroke are exercise (playing, working, walking, running) in warmer conditions prior to being properly acclimated to them, lack of water and shade, high humidity or confinement to an enclosed area with poor ventilation (a garage or parked car).
Non- environmental factors that could predispose a dog to developing heat stroke include being a brachycephalic breed (Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Boxer etc.), upper respiratory disease (chronic bronchitis/collapsing trachea, laryngeal paralysis), heart disease, obesity, older age, and a long coat. It is also believed that pets who have previously suffered a heatstroke are predisposed to future incidents.
Signs of heat stroke:
- excessive panting
- walking unsteadily
- becoming disoriented
- inability to rise after collapsing
- finding a pet unconscious
- seizing when exposed to warm temperatures.
If you are suspicious that your pet is experiencing heat stroke, you should institute cooling measures immediately.
You can wet the haircoat/skin with cool (not cold) water (a hose outside or the bathtub inside are extremely helpful) and direct cool air toward the skin with a fan. Then immediately transport to the veterinarian’s office. Call ahead, if possible, to alert the hospital staff of the situation and your impending arrival. Do NOT immerse the pet in ice water.
The veterinarian and hospital staff will examine your pet, continue the cooling process if necessary, draw blood for baseline lab testing and start IV fluids while monitoring the pet’s vital signs and response to treatment.
The prognosis for pets that develop heatstroke is usually dependent on the severity and duration of the heat exposure and whether they develop significant complications or not. Unfortunately, some pets may not survive even with aggressive therapy.
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