With summer months approaching, the seasoned ER technician in me knows in our world, it is time for heat stroke season. Heat stroke is a common condition seen in hot, humid environments. In my experience, most cases tend to be this time of year in particular. It’s in the beginning of hot afternoons, which may not feel extreme to people, where our pets are in danger because they have not had time to adjust. Often, owners are taken aback when told their pet is in heat stroke because the clinical signs may have begun after a short zoomie session at the dog park, or what was perceived as a quick run into the store while the pet remained in the car. Dogs are unique to humans in how their bodies work to dissipate excessive heat. While humans have sweat glands all over their bodies to help them cool off, dogs are limited to sweat glands in their paw pads and nose. Certain common preexisting conditions can put a pet at higher risk for heat stroke or allow more severe clinical signs. Our squishy-faced friends (bulldogs, boxers, pugs), longer haired creatures, and older animals are of higher risk. Conditions such as collapsing trachea, obesity, and previous heat stroke victims are also at a higher risk.
Heat stroke garners immediate veterinary attention. At its worst, it can lead to irreversible, multi-organ system dysfunction and brain damage that can be fatal. Some behavior seen in pets experiencing heat stroke include an elevated respiratory rate, elevated heart rate, dry, pale or bright red gums, lethargy and weakness, generalized anxiety, and an inability to get comfortable. In its severe manifestation, bloody diarrhea and lack of urinary output are seen as well as seizures and drastically-elevated body temperature.
If you suspect your animal has heat stroke, contact your veterinarian immediately. Actively cool your pet by putting them in a cool, well-ventilated area and placing cool water on their paws and abdomen. While ice packs, ice water, or alcohol topically intuitively seem like good ideas, they are discouraged because they cause constriction of blood vessels, propagating ongoing organ damage. When you seek veterinary care, your doctor may run bloodwork to evaluate if the heat procured any organ damage. This bloodwork can also help guide their treatment by assessing how well the blood cells are delivering oxygen, if the blood cells are damaged, and how well their blood cells are clotting. They may use an electrocardiogram to evaluate the heart, and supplemental oxygen may be provided. Your veterinarian may want to give IV fluids, and monitoring in the hospital for care may be warranted.
Prevent heat stroke by limiting pets to a cool environment indoors when environmental conditions are hot and humid. Dogs are most susceptible from 10 am to 4 pm. Give your animals adequate water and shade. Restrict exercise and keep them off hot surfaces like asphalt. Even if your pet is still eager to play fetch, if temperatures are hot or they are excessively panting with a lot of effort from their abdomen, taking a break indoors can be life saving. Do not leave your animals in a hot car! Even with the air conditioning on, the poor ventilation can decrease the time needed for heat stroke symptoms to manifest. A good rule of thumb: if it is too hot to place your hand on the sidewalk for seven seconds comfortably, it is too hot for your pet’s paws. Heat stroke is a preventable problem, and one very difficult to treat that can be costly! Consider early walks, swimming, or indoor enrichment this summer when the days get warmer.
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or learn about heat stroke and emergency care for dogs and cats.