Pets are not as efficient at dissipating heat as humans, making them susceptible to heatstroke—a condition that can have life-threatening consequences. Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Richmond team provides valuable heatstroke information, and explains how to protect your four-legged friend during Nederland’s hot, humid days.

Pet heatstroke

Your many sweat glands produce moisture, which evaporates from the skin, cooling your body. Your pet, however, has few sweat glands, mostly in their feet pads, which cool their bodies less efficiently. Therefore, your pet pants, and as air circulates through their mouth, moisture evaporates from their tongue and their mouth’s soft tissues, helping to cool their body. This cooling method becomes less effective when Southeast Texas temperatures are higher than 89.6 degrees, and the humidity level is high. 

Heatstroke occurs when your pet’s body temperature is higher than 104 degrees, but not attributable to fever. The condition is classified as exertional (i.e., occurring when a pet exercises in conditions where they cannot adequately cool themselves) or nonexertional (i.e., resulting from exposure to excessive environmental temperatures). As their temperature rises higher than normal (i.e., 101 to 102.5), your pet experiences damaging effects to several body systems, including:

  • Cardiovascular — Initially, peripheral vessels dilate to help dissipate heat, but when these measures fail, central vessels dilate, causing a decrease in circulating blood. This leads to electrolyte and perfusion abnormalities, and eventually low blood pressure and shock.
  • Respiratory — An increased body temperature can cause lung tissue inflammation, resulting in respiratory distress.
  • Gastrointestinal — Decreased perfusion results in damage to the gastrointestinal lining, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream.
  • Kidneys — Direct thermal injury and inadequate perfusion can cause kidney damage, leading to kidney failure.
  • Central nervous system — Sustained high body temperatures can cause brain tissue to swell and hemorrhage, leading to cell death.
  • Coagulation — In severe heatstroke cases, disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) can occur, causing widespread abnormal bleeding throughout the body.

Pet heatstroke signs

Learn to recognize heatstroke signs to ensure you get your pet the care they need as soon as possible. Signs include:

  • Excessive panting — Because panting is your pet’s primary cooling method, they will pant constantly with their mouth fully open. Dogs will extend their tongue—which may appear swollen—as far as possible.
  • Drooling — As your pet’s temperature rises, their body produces more saliva to help facilitate cooling. As the condition progresses, your pet’s saliva becomes thick and stringy, indicating dehydration.
  • Dry, red gums — Dehydrated pets have dry mucous membranes, and peripheral blood vessel dilation causes their gums to appear bright red. 
  • Gastrointestinal signs — When gastrointestinal lining damage occurs, pets exhibit signs such as vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Central nervous system signs — When central nervous system damage occurs, your pet can experience confusion, incoordination, seizures, and collapse.

Pet heatstroke first aid

When your pet experiences heatstroke, their prognosis depends on how high their temperature reaches, and the length of time their temperature remains elevated. Gradually cooling your pet as soon as possible improves their chance of survival. Pet heatstroke first aid steps include:

  • Finding a cool spot — Immediately move your pet to a cool, well-ventilated spot. 
  • Offering water — Offer your pet cool water, but do not force them to drink, or pour water in their mouth.
  • Taking your pet’s temperature — Using a rectal thermometer, take your pet’s temperature, so you can monitor their progress, and report the information to their veterinarian. 
  • Cooling your pet — Pour cool water over your pet. Do not use ice or cold water, because bringing down your pet’s temperature too quickly can result in shock.
  • Seeking veterinary care — While cooling your pet as soon as possible is important, do not allow these measures to delay getting your pet to a veterinary hospital. Your pet will need veterinary attention to ensure they do not suffer internal damage. 

Pet heat safety tips

The best way to protect your pet from heatstroke is through prevention. Follow these heat safety tips: 

  • Never leave your pet unattended in a vehicle — Temperatures inside a parked car can skyrocket, becoming dangerously hot in minutes. Parking in the shade and leaving your windows cracked open are not enough to prevent a vehicle’s interior temperature from rapidly rising to a dangerous level. 
  • Restrict your pet’s exercise — Avoid strenuous exercise on hot, humid days, and take frequent breaks when you are on outings.
  • Provide water — Ensure your pet always has access to fresh water, and take water and a water bowl on outings to help them remain hydrated.
  • Protect at-risk pets — Senior pets, overweight pets, brachycephalic pets—such as pugs, bulldogs, and Persian cats—and medically compromised pets have a high heatstroke risk, and should remain inside an air-conditioned house, except for brief outdoor bathroom breaks, preferably during the day’s coolest times.
  • Acclimate your pet — Allow your pet to acclimate gradually to warmer temperatures. 
  • Leave your air conditioner running — When you leave your home, keep the air conditioner running to prevent the indoor temperature from rising to a dangerously high level.

Heatstroke can have life-threatening consequences for your pet, but you can prevent them from developing this dangerous condition. If your pet overheats, contact our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Richmond team to provide the care they need.