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How to identify and prevent heat stroke in dogs and cats

Heavy panting, warm ears and redder gums are some signs that your pet’s body temperature is higher than it should. Detecting it on time and cooling the animal down can be key to its survival

A dog doing its best to survive the heat.
A dog doing its best to survive the heat.Busybee-CR (Getty Images)

High temperatures can cause heat strokes that put the health and life of your pet at risk; avoiding them and identifying them on time can save their life. A sudden rise in body temperature above 104 degrees can cause a collapse, leading to the death of dogs and cats, which have few sweat glands and cannot lower and regulate their body heat properly, making them susceptible to experiencing this condition.

“The body temperature rises a lot and the animals can’t regulate it. Their mechanisms to lower it and lose excess heat are not enough, and a generalized failure of all the organs of their body can be triggered, until it causes the death of the animal,” explains veterinarian Marta Seguí from the Hospital Veterinari Montjuïc Vetpartners, in Barcelona.

Why do cats suffer less from heat stroke? Felines generally suffer fewer health problems from high temperatures due to their different lifestyles. “Cats don’t usually go outside; they spend most of their time at home, where environmental conditions protect them from the heat,” says Seguí. Still, some breeds are more intolerant to high temperatures than others: “Long-haired cats such as the Persian, brachycephalic or flat-faced cats, as well as those who suffer from cardiorespiratory diseases or obesity, are more prone to heat stroke.” The expert mentions other cases in which animals are at greater risk of heat-related health problems; for instance, when they are puppies or very old, when they have dark fur or if they have just eaten and are exposed to high temperatures.

In the case of dogs, 57% of those that are taken to the veterinary clinic due to heat stroke die, although the risk decreases when the symptoms are detected and treated early, according to a study carried out in 2021 by veterinary researchers from Nottingham Trent University and the Royal Veterinary College, in England.

Risky situations when the thermometer rises

Seguí explains some of the different conditions that can lead dogs or cats to suffer from heat stroke during the summer:

Cats suffer less from sunstroke because they do not usually go outside and spend most of their time at home, where environmental conditions protect them from the heat.
Cats suffer less from sunstroke because they do not usually go outside and spend most of their time at home, where environmental conditions protect them from the heat.Kseniya Ovchinnikova (Getty Images)

Signs that your pet is having a heat stroke

Ideally, you should detect the excessive increase in temperature (hyperthermia) before it reaches the point of heat stroke, which occurs above 104 degrees and causes loss of consciousness. There are several signs that indicate that the animal is at risk, explains Christian Martí, veterinary director of Urvet Marbella, member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS) and of the European Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (EVECCS). They are:

What to do

57% of dogs that are taken to the veterinary clinic for heat stroke die, although the risk decreases if the symptoms are detected and treated on time.
57% of dogs that are taken to the veterinary clinic for heat stroke die, although the risk decreases if the symptoms are detected and treated on time.Anita Kot (Getty Images)

If you think that your pet is experiencing a drastic rise in temperature that can lead to heat stroke, Martí recommends: “Try cooling the animal down before going to the vet, because the first few minutes are essential to avoid serious consequences for their health. It should be done with water that is not excessively cold and a fan.” Heat strokes are a veterinary emergency; you must take your pet to a clinic as soon as possible.

One of the places where this occurs more frequently is the car, due to the high temperatures that the vehicle reaches in the summer, even in the shade and with the windows open. “There is increasing awareness about the risks of leaving pets in cars. However, we continue to see many dogs that have been exposed to long walks during hours of high heat and humidity and come to the clinic with heat strokes,” says the expert.

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