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Heat Stroke Emergency

The start of warm and humid weather is a sign for everyone to start shedding their heavy coats for some lighter clothing.  

It is a time for enjoying cool drinks under a shady tree.  

Unfortunately for many pets, they don’t have these luxuries, and being denied the ability to cool off can cause the often fatal condition of heat stroke. 

The medical term for heat stroke is Hyperthermia, which means an excessively high body temperature.  Fevers, extreme exercise, and hyper-activity are frequent causes of Hyperthermia in pets.  In some cases the elevated body temperature is transitory, and the pet is able to bring down their body temperature to normal without any detrimental effects when given the opportunity to calm down and cool off.  Other times, such as in conditions where the pet cannot escape a hot and humid environment, are overly excited, or have underlying medical conditions, the excessively high body temperature does damage to the pet’s organs and brain, or may result in the pet’s death.

Heat stroke does not only occur when your pet is left in a car on a hot day, although this is one of the most frequent reasons.

Many times heat stroke is caused through simple, daily activities your pet may do, but only the weather has changed, or their access to the ability to self-regulate their body temperature has been restricted.  The heat outside is more than just the temperature reading or season, but involves the humidity in the air, as well as the angle of the sun during a particular time of day, the intensity of the sunlight, and the surface the sun is hitting.  A simple walk around the block may not normally bother your pet; but a combination of humidity, sun intensity, hot sidewalk, breed, coat thickness, weight, and underlying medical conditions may make a walk that was only casual yesterday, deadly today.  When a house is closed up while the humans are at work and play, pets left inside can suffer heat stroke due to the lack of air movement through the house, even if windows are open.

The best ways to deal with heat stroke is to prevent it from occurring to your pet in the first place.  Following the tips below can ensure that your pet survives the hot and humid weather calm and cool.

1.  Make sure your pet has had a recent veterinary exam.  Many medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, breathing difficulties due to collapsing tracheas and short snouts, obesity, and arthritis can contribute to your pet’s predisposition for heat stroke.  Pets that are overly excitable can also be predisposed to getting heat stroke.  Certain breeds are more likely to experience heat stroke.  Being aware of your pet’s medical conditions, their breed’s predilection for heat stroke, and knowing how to provide your pet with the extra help they may need on a hot day goes a long way to keep them safe and cool.

2.  Many of us would never consider leaving our pet in our cars, even for a moment, on a hot day, but we don’t often think of our houses in the same way.  If your pet is going to be restricted inside your house during the day, leave on an air conditioner.  If this is not possible, provide at least a fan to create air circulation, and leave all the inside doors open so air can move freely around the house provided your pet is permitted to have access to those areas.  Open windows are not enough, and if you have security concerns that make you lock your windows before leaving your house, conditions inside your house can become just as deadly as if you’ve left your pet in a car.  Moving air with ceiling fans or portable fans is the best way to keep your house cool.  If your house has a basement your pet is allowed in, leave this door open, as basements are often the coolest part of a house.  If you fear an elderly pet falling down basement stairs or just don’t want your pet in the basement, put a baby gate in the doorway and leave the door open, your pet will enjoy the cool air wafting up into the main part of the house.  Leave plenty of water in multiple locations.  Evaporating water cools the air, and you must always leave enough for your pet to drink through the day.  And if you can, allow your pet access to areas like tile bathroom and kitchen floors, as these surfaces are often cooler than carpet to lay on.

3.  Do not exercise or have active playtime with your pet in hot, humid weather.  A simple walk around the block can be too much for some pets, especially if that pet is obese, has a short snout, has a thick coat, or has underlying medical conditions.  Keep playtimes towards the very early or very late portions of the day, and minimize excitement during parties or other activities that may make your pet anxious and hyperactive.  A lot of heat stroke cases that end up in animal hospitals are because people did not realize what they consider their pet’s normal behavior can elevate body temperature, and in combination with hot, humid weather, pushes the pet’s body into heat stroke.  Elderly pets are most prone to heat stroke because of the extra effort they have to put into everyday tasks, such as walking out into a yard to use the bathroom.

4.  Provide access to clean water at all times, and refresh this water frequently.  Keep outside water bowels in the shade to keep the water cool.  Many pets who spend lots of time outdoors will greatly benefit from a small wading pool that they can partly submerged in, and will enjoy having this pool shaded.  Some pets even like to play with ice or in very cold water, although you should use ice and very cold water with caution because too much can cause the pet’s body to get too cold, a condition known as rebound hypothermia.

5.  If your pet is going to be left outside, make sure they have plenty of shaded areas to relax in.  Dogs should never be left in kennels or tied up in full sunlight, and cats might need a shaded porch or other location to have access too.  Pets should be free to move from sunny locations to shady locations at will to help them with self-regulating their body temperature.  If you notice your pet laying out in the full sun for an extended period of time (I like to call them “solar panel pets”), you may need to encourage them to move into a cooler spot yourself, don’t assume your pet will move when they are ready to.  Elderly pets that have a very difficult time with standing and walking may have a particularly difficult time with moving into the shade when they are too hot, so keep a very close eye on these pets when they are outside.

6.  Keep track of the sun’s movement in your yard throughout the day.  An area where you left your pet that morning may be exposed to full sun later that afternoon, making it not optimal for leaving your pet there.  If your yard has no access to natural shade in the form of trees, create shade by erecting sun blocking tents.  Many sun blocking tents are very portable, making it easy to move the tent for optimal shade creation.

7.  Outdoor enclosures, such as pet houses, should be moved into a location that is completely shaded 100% of the day, and need to be checked to make sure they have proper ventilation.  Pet igloos that are nice in the winter become hot houses during the summer when air can’t move through them.  Pet houses do not count as shade access for your pet, and sun blocking tents should be erected over pet houses if natural shade is not available.

8.  Tolerate digging.  Laying in holes in the dirt is a way pets help self-regulate their body temperature, as dirt is often cool against their bodies.  A lot of pets enjoy digging hiding spots beneath bushes and in gardens beneath plants.  As long as the mulch or plants are non-toxic, tolerating a little help in the garden can go a long way towards preventing heat stroke.

9.  Surfaces that burn our bare feet in the summer also hurt our pet’s feet.  Keep your pets away from surfaces such as patios, decks, driveways, beaches, and sidewalks as they tend to absorb heat that can burn paw pads, reflect glare in a pet’s face that causes eye damage, and don’t offer a cool location for a pet to retreat to.  If navigating such a surface is a daily part of your pet’s life, keep their contact with the surface as brief as possible, and if available, lay down wet towels over frequent pathways such as to-and-from potty areas.  Pet’s kept in kennels with concrete surfaces should have “hammock” style lounging areas that keep their bodies up off the hot concrete.  Pet booties can also protect paw pads from burning hot surfaces.

10.  Never, Ever leave your pet in a car, even if that car is in the shade with the windows all the way open.  If you see a pet left in a car, dial emergency services or law enforcement right away.  It is considered felony animal cruelty to leave a pet in a car for any extended period of time.

Taking the above steps can help you avoid potentially deadly heat stroke.  But sometimes even our best efforts may not mitigate a pet getting hyperthermic and suffering from heat stroke.  All instances of heat stroke require veterinary care, and the minute you suspect your pet may be suffering from heat stroke, you should be on your way to the nearest veterinary hospital.  The following symptoms are an indication that your pet may be suffering from heat stroke, and thing you can do to help reduce the impact of the condition while you are on the way to the veterinary hospital.

1.  Body temperatures above 104oF.  The normal body temperature of cats and dogs is 100oF to 102oF, which is why heat stroke can happen so very quickly to a pet.  Some pets are not co-operative with the use of thermometers to take their body temperature, especially if they are in distress.  Pets suffering from heat stroke will have ears and paw pads that feel like they are “burning up.”  Do not rely on a moist nose to indicate your pet is “fine.”  Your pet’s nose may be moist from excessive licking of their nose, or from foam and saliva.  If your pet’s fur feels excessively hot, draping cool, wet towels over their body, and washing them with cool (not cold) water will help bring down their body temperature.  Get them out of the hot environment into a cool location as quick as you can.  Applying ice packs to their ear flaps and paw pads can also help while you are on your way to the veterinary hospital.  Do not offer your pet any water to drink, as they may vomit this water.

2.  Excessive panting, especially if there is a lot of foam around their mouths from excessive salivation.  They may also have a lot of difficulty breathing, and if your pet is “honking” while panting, get them to the veterinary hospital right away.  Keep your pet calm and do as much as you can to reduce your pet’s anxiety.

3.  A swollen tongue, or a blue or purple colored tongue and gums.  This is an indication your pet is not getting enough oxygen and is an immediate medical emergency!  A swollen, engorged tongue, even if it is bright red, is an indication of blood rushing to the surface to try and get cool before returning to the body, and a swollen tongue can be interfering with your pet’s ability to breath!  If you have a hand-held fan, direct this towards your pet’s face perpendicular to their tongue so that you can move hot breath away from their tongues and contribute to cooling their bodies.

4.  Staggering, lethargy, inability to walk or get up, a lack of desire to rise, and a lack of awareness.  Pets may be wandering around as if “drunk” and seem listless.  Alcohol is also very toxic to pets, so whether your pet has heat stroke or is suffering from alcohol poisoning, you need to guide your pet towards safety, and make sure they are comfortable in the car on the way to the animal hospital.

5.  Any vomiting and diarrhea.  Some pets that drink too fast will regurgitate all the water offered to them, so don’t offer your pet any water to drink if they are experiencing heat stroke.  Cold water sitting in a pet’s stomach can also cause stomach pains and lead to stomach problems.  Your veterinarian will want to provide your pet with intravenous fluid support to counteract any dehydration your pet is experiencing.

6.  Seizures of any kind, and non-responsiveness of any kind.  The end-stages of heat stroke can be coma, and if your pet is not responding to you in any fashion, there is nothing you’d be able to do for them at home, so getting them to an animal hospital as quickly as you can is the best.

Even if your pet recovers after treatment for heat stroke at home, and appears to be “normal” again, do not assume everything is fine.  Internal organs such as liver, kidneys, and the brain are affected by the body’s temperature elevation, and blood tests and veterinary examination are needed to assess this.  Damage may be done to such organs even if the symptoms of heat stroke are no longer apparent. There is also a complex blood problem, called DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation) that can be a secondary complication to heat stroke that is fatal, and may not be apparent until hours after an episode of heat stroke has occurred.  Observation in a cool, quiet animal hospital with supportive care may be the best way for your pet to make a full recovery from an episode of heat stroke.  Long term damage from heat stoke is hard to determine in pets, and if you notice anything odd about your pet after they are discharged from the hospital, alert your veterinarian right away.

We want all our patients to be safe during the hot, humid weather, so please take some time to be aware of your pet’s environment, and do all you can to reduce the chances of your pet suffering from heat stroke.  Call 631-696-2400 if you have any questions regarding the symptoms of heat stroke.

Please note, Suffolk Veterinary Group Animal Wellness & Laser Surgery Center is not a critical care, emergency, or specialty veterinary facility. While we would be happy to see your pet should they require immediate medical attention as our scheduling and staffing allows during our office hours, we reserve the right to refer, transfer, or otherwise redirect patients to a critical care, emergency, or specialty veterinary facility if we deem it is within the patient's best interest to do so.

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I want to thank Dr. Winkler and his staff. They are the most compassionate animal care center ever. And when we recently had to put our kitty down, no where else will you receive the compassion they show. God bless them for their kindness and caring hearts.

Barbara B.
Selden, NY

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