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Heat Stroke in Pets

heat-strokeHeat stroke is still, unfortunately, a common occurrence in dogs and cats.  It typically occurs for two reasons:

1. A pet is left outside without access to water or shelter

2. A pet is left alone in a car

Just like you and I, pets need access to shade and water, and should not be left unattended for any period of time without these, particularly in a vehicle.  It can take mere minutes for the hot sun to increase the temperature in a car from an outside temperature even in the 50s or 60s F to well over 100 F.  Even with the window left open, it can reach incredibly hot temperatures inside a car.  Dogs rely on panting to cool themselves down which means the air temperature has to be cooler than the body temperature for this to work effectively.  If there is no escape route for the heat, a dog’s body temperature will continue to climb.

Signs of heat stroke are variable. The most worrisome signs are associated with the neurologic system, but other organs can be affected as well.  When an animal first gets overheated, they may feel panicked and agitated, which will make the situation worse.  As the body temperature continues to rise, they will become sedated and lethargic; this can progress to unconsciousness and seizures.  When this happens, death is not far away.  When the body temperature reaches more than 106 F (normal is about 100 F), life-threatening complications are usually imminent.

Other organ systems affected often include the gastrointestinal system, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea.  The clotting system can be affected as well, which may exacerbate bloody vomit and diarrhea, but also may lead to spontaneous “bruising” of the skin and internal bleeding of the organs.  This can very quickly result in kidney or liver failure.

If you think your pet might be suffering from heat stroke, the first step is to remove the pet from the hot environment immediately. If they are still conscious, allow them to drink small amounts of cool or cold water.   DO NOT immerse the pet in an ice-cold water bath- this actually causes constriction of the blood vessels in the skin and makes it more difficult for the body to dissipate the heat.  However, you can place a cool, wet towel or cloth around their feet, in their armpits or on their neck.  If you have a household fan, you can turn it toward the animal on low.  As the towels become dry and or warm, they should be removed, wrung out and wet again.  You may use a garden hose to cool the armpits and feet as well.  If your pet is unconscious, you should start CPR and get to the veterinarian immediately.

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