The complete guide to Heatstroke in Cats and Dogs Causes, symptoms, prevention & treatment

 

Owning a pet is one of life’s great joys, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. These little creatures rely on you for food, shelter and care. It’s one thing to offer pats and cuddles, but to really express love for your pets you should always be aware of what health issues may affect them.

As temperatures soar, a common issue that all caring pet owners should be aware of is heatstroke (also known as heat stress). With the heat of the summer months, the number of cats and dogs visiting the vet due to this condition rises. Unfortunately many pet owners do not even realise that their cats and dogs can overheat when the weather is hot, and may only seek treatment at the eleventh hour.

While heat stress is more common in warmer months, it can occur at any time throughout the year even when the weather is mild.

Cats and dogs cannot respond to heat in the same way that us humans do. We have sweat glands all over our bodies that help us regulate our temperature, but dogs and cats only have a few in their feet and around their noses. Many animals rely on panting and external cooling to lose heat. Their long thick hair coats can also predispose them to heat stroke.

Because they’re not able to cool themselves down as easily as us, we have to be extra careful to provide them with a cool, well-ventilated and shaded environment with access to clean fresh drinking water. Pets are very susceptible to heat stroke – and it can happen a lot faster than you may think.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia (elevated core body temperature above the normal range) resulting in heat injury to tissues. Heatstroke occurs when heat generation exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat.

 

What are the main predisposing factors for Heatstroke?

  • A warm/hot, humid environment with inadequate ventilation
    (e.g. due to weather conditions or animals being left in an unventilated room or car)
  • Inadequate shade
  • Inadequate drinking water
  • Excessive exercise

Heatstroke is a very serious, life threatening condition: it can cause damage to your pet’s internal organs, sometimes to the point where they stop functioning and can be rapidly fatal – it requires urgent treatment.

Preventing heatstroke

The good news is that 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.

What are the main predisposing factors for Heatstroke?

Help your best friend keep their cool and enjoy Summer with a bit of knowledge and a backup plan. As long as you take into consideration the following rules, both you and your pet can enjoy the Summer safely:

  • Have a cool, well-ventilated space for your pet. Good ventilation is critical because many animals lose heat by panting (evaporative cooling) which relies on good air flow. Outdoor pets should also always have access to shade.
  • All pets should have access to plenty of fresh clean drinking water at all times.
  • Never leave your pet in a car as temperatures rise extremely quickly even on mild temperature days and can kill pets rapidly.
  • Avoid exercising animals in hot weather.
  • Avoid hot sand, concrete, asphalt areas or any other areas where heat is reflected and there is no access to shade.
  • Be aware of the symptoms and look out for the signs in your pet. These include:
    • Panting which increases as heatstroke progresses
    • Drooling, salivating
    • Agitation, restlessness
    • Very red or pale gums
    • Bright red tongue
    • Increased heart rate
    • Breathing distress
    • Vomiting Diarrhea (possibly with blood)
    • Signs of mental confusion, delirium
    • Dizziness, staggering
    • Lethargy, weakness
    • Muscle tremors
    • Seizures
    • Collapsing and lying down
    • Little to no urine production
    • Coma

If you suspect your pet has heatstroke or they are showing signs of heatstroke:

Know how to do Emergency First Aid at home if you suspect your pet has heatstroke. Initial emergency treatment at home should aim to normalise body temperature.

  • Remove your pet from the hot environment immediately.
  • Apply or spray tepid/cool water onto the animal’s fur and skin. Then apply a fan/fanning 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 worsen the problem.
  • Then take your pet to the nearest Veterinarian immediately.
  • Heatstroke is an emergency – always see a vet. Even if your pet looks like they may be recovering or you just suspect they might have heatstroke they should still always be checked 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

What are other predisposing factors for heatstroke?

** Note ** All animals are susceptible to heatstroke so owners need to make sure that they take active steps to prevent it. However, some other reported predisposing factors can include:

  • Obesity
  • Brachycephalic anatomy (flat-faced breeds) such as Pugs, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, Persian and Himalayan cats, among others
  • Breathing difficulties/respiratory disease – laryngeal paralysis, collapsing trachea
  • Heart problems/Cardiovascular disease
  • Neurological disease
  • Age extremes (young or old)
  • Thick/long hair coat – e.g. long haired breeds
  • Excessive exercise
  • Dehydration
 

Click below for more specific information on heatstroke in cats and dogs.

  • Cats

  • Dogs

 

How to tell if a cat is suffering from heatstroke

Did you know that cats are thought to have evolved from desert animals? This may be why some cats have a propensity to drink minimal water, so dehydration is a big risk in Summer.

Many people are aware of heatstroke in dogs but many are less aware that cats can also suffer from heatstroke.

Signs of heatstroke in cats are similar to signs in dogs, however they may be more subtle and can include:

  • Panting, which increases as heatstroke progresses
  • Drooling, salivating
  • Agitation, restlessness (cats may pace)
  • Bright red tongue
  • Very red or pale gums
  • Increased heart rate
  • Breathing distress
  • Vomiting, diarrhoea (possibly with blood)
  • Signs of mental confusion, delirium
  • Dizziness, staggering
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Collapsing and lying down
  • Little to no urine production
  • Coma
 

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your cat or if you suspect heatstroke, instigate Emergency First Aid at home and then take your cat to the vet immediately.

Emergency First Aid treatment:

  • Remove your pet cat from the hot environment immediately.
  • Apply or spray tepid/cool water onto their fur and skin. Then apply a fan/fanning 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 worsen the problem.
  • Then take your cat to the nearest Veterinarian immediately.
  • Heatstroke is an emergency – always see a vet. Even if your pet looks like they may be recovering or you just suspect they might have heatstroke they should still always be checked by a vet.
 

What will a vet do for a cat suffering from heatstroke?

Vets are trained to assess the severity of the heatstroke and then provide emergency medical treatment as required. They will check your cat’s body temperature with a thermometer and check their 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
  • Medications as required
  • Blood tests to check organ function
  • Ongoing monitoring and treatment as required
 
What are other predisposing risk factors for heatstroke in cats?

** NOTE ** All cats are susceptible to heatstroke so owners need to make sure that they take active steps to prevent it. However, some other predisposing factors for cats can include:

  • Cats with flat faces/short snouts
  • Overweight or obese cats
  • Cats with heart problems
  • Cats with breathing problems
  • Cats with neurological disease
  • Thick/long hair coat
  • Extremes in age (young or old)
  • Dehydration
 

Brachycephalic anatomy (flat-face) is a major risk factor for heatstroke. Adequate snout length is very important for losing body heat. Flat-faced breeds also often suffer from serious obstructive breathing problems which also significantly impairs their ability to lose heat.

Flat-faced cat breeds include:

  • Persian
  • Himalayan
  • Exotic Shorthair
  • Or any other cat with a flat face/short snout

How to tell if a dog is suffering from heatstroke

One of the most common causes of heatstroke in dogs occurs when they are left in cars by their owners. Most dog owners recognise this as bad, but some think their dog will be okay if they return quickly. The reality is that cars heat up very fast, even in the mildest of weather. Dogs can die in this situation and suffer terribly. Never leave your dog in a car.

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 mean that the dog cannot lose body heat causing rapid over heating which can be fatal. Animals in these conditions suffer horribly – please Don’t risk it. See RSPCA NSW and the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase for more information.

Heat stroke can also occur in hot humid weather conditions. If your dog is kept mainly outdoors, ensure they have a well-ventilated and cool shady space that’s out of the sun in which to relax. If you live in an apartment or prefer to keep your pup indoors, ensure the space is well-ventilated and cool (e.g. turn on the air conditioning) when the weather is warm. Of course, your dog should also always have access to fresh drinking water to avoid dehydrating.

Also avoid over-exercising your dog in general and avoid exercising them in hot weather. Wait until the temperature has decreased, for example, by going for a walk in the evening when it is cool.

Signs of heatstroke in dogs include:

  • Panting, which increases as heatstroke progresses
  • Drooling, salivating
  • Agitation, restlessness
  • Bright red tongue
  • Very red or pale gums
  • Increased heart rate
  • Breathing distress
  • Vomiting, diarrhoea (possibly with blood)
  • Signs of mental confusion, delirium
  • Dizziness, staggering
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures
  • Collapsing and lying down
  • Little to no urine production
  • Coma
 

If you notice any of the above symptoms in your dog or if you suspect heatstroke, instigate Emergency First Aid at home and then take your dog to the vet immediately.

Emergency First Aid treatment:
  • Remove your pet dog from the hot environment immediately.
  • Apply or spray tepid/cool water onto their fur and skin. Then apply a fan/fanning 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 worsen the problem.
  • Then take your dog to the nearest Veterinarian immediately.
  • Heatstroke is an 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.
 

What will a vet do for a dog suffering from heatstroke?

Vets are trained to assess the severity of the heatstroke and then provide emergency medical treatment as required. They will check your dog’s body temperature with a thermometer and check their 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
  • Medications as required
  • Blood tests to check organ function
  • Ongoing monitoring and treatment as required
 

What are other predisposing factors for heatstroke in dogs?

** Note ** All dogs are susceptible to heatstroke so owners need to make sure that they take active steps to prevent it. However, some other predisposing factors for dogs can include:

  • Dogs with flat faces/short snouts
  • Overweight or obese dogs
  • Dogs with heart problems
  • Dogs with breathing problems
  • Dogs with neurological disease
  • Thick/long hair coat
  • Excessive exercise
  • Extremes in age (young or old)
  • Dehydration
 

Brachycephalic anatomy (flat-face) is a major risk factor for heatstroke. Adequate snout length is very important for losing body heat. Flat-faced breeds also often suffer from serious obstructive breathing problems which also significantly impairs their ability to lose heat.

Flat–faced dog breeds include:

  • Pug
  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Pekingese
  • Boston terrier
  • Shih tzu
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Japanese Chin
  • Or any other dog with a flat-face/ short snout.