Heatstroke is a common summertime condition that’s fatal if not treated promptly. Even the healthiest of pets can succumb to dehydration, sunburn, and other heat-related illnesses when outside in the heat and humidity. Animals don’t sweat like people and instead rely mostly on panting to cool themselves. Panting allows the exchange of some warm air for cool, but when the air temperature nears or exceeds the body temperature, panting no longer helps. Prompt recognition of the warning signs of heatstroke and immediate treatment are crucial for a positive outcome.

How to recognize heatstroke in your pet

Heat exhaustion, the precursor to heatstroke can progress rapidly, especially if you don’t intervene immediately to begin cooling down your pet. Watch for the following heatstroke warning signs:

  • Excessive panting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Increased heart and respiratory rates
  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Bright red gums
  • Weakness
  • Collapse
  • Seizures

Heat exhaustion typically occurs when your pet’s body temperature rises above 103 degrees. If left unchecked, the body temperature can skyrocket to 106 degrees or more, causing multiple organ dysfunction and heart failure. Contact our clinic promptly at the first warning sign and begin cooling procedures to bring down your pet’s temperature.

What to do if your pet is overheated

At the first sign of heat exhaustion, take immediate action to cool down your pet. We recommend that you follow this at-home treatment process:

  • Immediately move your pet to a cooler area — Look for a shaded area with a fan if outdoors, or move your pet into an air-conditioned building.
  • Offer your pet cool water — Avoid ice-cold water and don’t allow your pet to drink excessive amounts at once.
  • Begin cooling your pet’s body with cool, not cold, water — Cool water gradually changes your pet’s temperature. Icy water causes a sudden shock and constricts blood vessels, which prevents the body’s core from cooling and raises the body temperature even higher. Place cool, wet rags or washcloths on the paw pads, in the groin, under the armpits, and around the neck to slowly decrease your pet’s temperature, changing the rags frequently as they get warm. Avoid fully covering your pet with wet towels because they can trap heat.
  • Check your pet’s temperature frequently with a rectal thermometer — When the temperature reaches 106 degrees or above, your pet is in danger. Temperatures of 103 to 106 degrees are still alarming and should be lowered, but avoid dropping your pet’s temperature too far and causing hypothermia.
  • Have your dog examined by your family veterinarian — At our hospital, we will check your pet’s temperature to ensure it’s normalized, and also search for signs of organ dysfunction. Complications from heatstroke, such as kidney failure, clotting disorders, or heart rhythm irregularities, require immediate treatment.

Risk factors for heatstroke in pets

While any pet can be stricken with heatstroke, some are more susceptible to overheating. Risk factors include:

  • Age—young or old pets
  • Obesity
  • Poor acclimatization to a hot climate
  • Underlying heart or lung disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Breed—short-nosed, flat-faced breeds, such as pugs, bulldogs, and Persian cats
  • Thick hair coat
  • Dehydration or lack of water access

Take extra precautions if your pet has a higher risk of heatstroke, keeping in mind her age, breed, and disease restrictions.  

How to keep your pet safe in hot weather

Pets enjoy basking in the summer sun as much as we do, but we have to take certain precautions to keep them safe. Follow these tips to prevent heatstroke in your pet:

  • Never leave your pet alone in a car — Your pet may accidentally knock the air conditioner control or turn the car off. And, the temperature inside a car can rise dramatically and become oven-like, even on a moderately warm day.
  • Keep a close eye on pets around swimming pools — Not all pets can swim. Be sure to rinse your pet off after her swim to remove chlorine and other chemicals.
  • Ensure window screens are secure or unscreened windows are kept closed to prevent your pet from falling out.
  • Never shave your pet’s hair short — The hair coat is designed to protect animals from overheating and sunburn, and removing all the hair interferes with your pet’s natural thermal regulation. Instead, brush your pet more frequently to improve airflow.
  • Don’t walk your dog on hot asphalt — Stick to shaded areas, or only walk during the early morning or late evening. Be careful—pavement can hold the sun’s heat long into the night.

If you suspect your pet is suffering from heat exhaustion, seek veterinary care immediately. If your family veterinarian is closed, contact us for help.