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Animal Care Tips: Keeping Pets Cool

This article was written by Dr. Natalie S. Titus, DVM and printed in the Arlington Journal newspaper (Arlington, VA).

Posted with express permission from: Dr. Natalie S. Titus


Heat stroke is a summer danger that can be prevented. Heatstroke most often occurs on hot, humid days. As the outdoor temperature rises, pets use panting to help dissipate the heat. If the temperature rises faster than they are able to accommodate, their body temperature will rise rapidly. Signs progress from panting to increased heart rate to respiratory distress to seizures, coma and death.

Many factors such as ambient temperature, exposure time, air circulation, humidity, anxiety and activity level and general health/medical problems affect how quickly a pet may develop heat prostration.

Brachycephalic breeds (those with "flat" noses) are more at risk because they have a compromised airway.

Heatstroke affects all body systems. The cardiovascular system has an increased metabolic rate and increased oxygen consumption. The respiratory system shows signs of hyperventilation, which in turn affects the acid-base balance of the whole body. Pets can go into acute respiratory failure. Muscle tissue breaks down, fluid accumulates in the brain and the coagulation system breaks down. Once the temperature reaches 109 degrees, the pet has only a few minutes before the heat destroys all tissues.

Clinical signs start with panting and anxiety. The gums get dark, and the pet has an increased heart rate and temperature. After a short while, the pet develops severe respiratory distress and goes into a stupor. The pet may have bloody vomit and diarrhea before having a seizure, going into a coma and dying.

Treatment for heatstroke involves cooling the pet down to a normal temperature as quickly as possible, while preventing or treating shock and brain swelling, which are sequela to heatstroke. If the pet is having respiratory difficulty, the airway needs to be kept open and oxygen should be supplied if necessary. Intravenous fluids are given as treatment for dehydration and shock; they also can help correct acid-base imbalances and electrolyte imbalances. Additional medications are given for shock and brain swelling. The body temperature should be brought down to 103 degrees within the first 10 minutes using cool, not cold, water. Seizures are treated with standard medication.

To avoid heatstroke, never leave pets in enclosed areas, especially cars. Always provide shade and water for outdoor pets. Do not overexercise your pet in a hot, humid environment. Bring pets into air-conditioned or cooler quarters when appropriate. If your pet appears to be suffering from heat prostration, cool him down with cool water and take him to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Sunburn is another summer hazard that can be prevented. People think that the sun cannot burn their pets, but it is a real possibility.

Clinical signs in pets are much like those in humans: pain and redness at the area of overexposure.

Treatment includes cleaning away dead tissue and using an appropriate soothing antibiotic cream. Some pets, especially those with white faces and ears, are prone to a condition called solar dermatitis. Chronic exposure to the sun leads to recurrent dermatitis and irritation.

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