Summer means good weather for swimming and water sports. Humans love to soak up the sun at the pool or on the lake, but pets experience the season wearing a fur coat. The fur coat that your dog wears daily causes a high risk of heat stroke in the heat. It is important that we keep this in mind and make accommodations to protect your furred family members.
So, what is heatstroke? Heatstroke is the common name for a medical condition called hyperthermia (elevated body temperature). A dog’s normal body temperature is 100-102 degrees. Heat stoke can occur when a dog’s body temperature rises above normal range. When a dog’s body temperature reaches 107 degrees or above it is considered critical.
What causes heat stroke? The most common cause of heat stroke is leaving a dog in a parked car. When outside temperatures are in the 70’s the temperature in a car can reach 120 degrees within 20 minutes. Aside from parked cars, other risks include leaving a pet outdoors in hot weather without adequate shade and cool water, excessive exercise or nervous running/pacing in hot weather and climates with high humidity.
So why is it difficult for pets to cool off? Aside from wearing fur coats, dogs do not effectively sweat. Since dogs have very few sweat glands (most located on their pads), the majority of the heat they need to dissipate leaves their body through panting. As a dog pants, heat evaporates off their tongue. In climates with high humidity, panting can be ineffective because the humidity in the air reduces evaporation. Additionally, if you have a brachycephalic breed (smashed face breed) such as a pug, boxer, or bulldog, be aware of their restricted airway. In these breeds, signs of heatstroke can occur in mild temperatures. These breeds should never be outside for long periods of time when temperatures are greater than in the 80’s. Their smashed faces and extra skin in their throats greatly reduce the effectiveness of panting. Watch these breeds diligently and avoid exercise when outdoor temperatures rise.
What are the signs of heat stroke? When a dog is suffering from heatstroke, you will notice rapid breathing, muscle tremors, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal gum color, lethargic, collapse, loss of consciousness, disoriented behavior, or even seizures.
What should you do if your dog is overheated? If you are concerned that your dog may be having a heat stroke, it is important to immediately go to a veterinarian. While you are on route, cool damp towels can help reduce your pet’s temperature. Be sure to frequently rotate the towel so they remain cool. Do not put ice on your pet. This will reduce body temperatures too rapidly which can cause additional problems.
What will a veterinarian do that you cannot do at home? Once you get your dog to the vet, they will administer IV fluids, give oxygen, and perform laboratory tests to evaluate the seriousness of the heatstroke. In very mild cases of heatstroke, pets may be able to go home after their body temperature returns to normal. In most cases, your pet will need to remain hospitalized to repeat lab work. These tests are important to monitor possible organ failure.
What is the prognosis for heat stroke? The long-term survival of heat stoke will depend on how long the hyperthermia lasted and how high the temperature rose. If your pet’s temperature did not get extremely high, most pets can recover quickly if they get treatment right away. Sadly, in cases of serious heat stroke the prognosis is not good. Studies have shown a mortality (death rate) of up to 50%. In these cases, death usually happens within 24 hours, but some dogs may die within a few days due to complications associated with organ failure. Successful treatment of heatstroke depends on immediate diagnosis and rapid medical intervention to reduce the pets body temperature.
What about other species?
Cats thermoregulatory system works very similarly to dogs. They wear a similar fur coat and they pant to cool. Despite their similarities, cats almost never get heat stroke. If a cat suffers heat stroke, it generally is locked inside a vehicle or inside a shed without water. Cats are stealthy creatures, so be cautious not to accidentally lock them in places they shouldn’t be.
Birds don’t have fur, but they wear a feather blanket. Think of how warm and cozy your down comforter is. That same heating system is what your bird wears round the clock. Birds cool themselves by taking a bath or going swimming. Once wet, a bird will fluff up their feathers in order to catch a breeze. They also hold their wings away from their body to allow air underneath. In hot weather, never leave your bird in direct sunlight. A mister system is also recommended if your bird is housed outside, (this would include caged farm birds). Ducks should always have a pond available.
Reptiles cannot self-regulate their body temperature. They depend on an outside source to cool or heat their bodies. Reptiles will hide in the shade or burrow in the earth where it is cooler. It is important to give an outdoor reptile dirt to burrow in or a shelter from the sun such as a dog house. Some reptiles come from tropical rain forests. These species require high humidity and will not survive in our dry desert type heat. If you own a tropical reptile, they should not be kept outdoors.
Rabbits and guinea pigs are very sensitive to heat. They can die rapidly in hot outdoor temperatures. If you house one of these pets outside, providing them blocks of ice daily will be important. Mister systems installed near their cages can keep your bunny or guinea pigs more comfortable. Housing them on the ground where they can burrow can be helpful as well.
Chinchillas, ferrets, or other cold climate exotics should not be housed outside in our climate. They are not equipped to survive in our Central Valley heat.
I hope you all enjoy a wonderful summer full of fun in the sun, but please do your part to keep your pets safe. Fur, feathers, or scales, all need special accommodations to deal with the summer heat. Heat stroke is a very dangerous condition and with a bit of diligence, it can be avoided.