The summer months are for most undoubtedly the period where our pets, particularly dogs, get the most outdoor exercise. And who could blame us – after months of cold and snow, we all want to get out for some sunshine! Dog parks, hikes and trails, and other outdoor activities provide our pets with much needed exercise, socialization and mental stimulation, all equally important to their health and well-being. With that said, we must use caution in over exerting our pets during days where temperatures are in excess of 30°C (or sometimes less – more on that later), as heat stroke (or hyperthermia) is a potential consequence.
Hyperthermia may be a life-threatening condition, and does require immediate veterinary treatment. A dog’s normal body temperature is 101.5°F plus or minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, and any time the body temperature is higher than 104°F, a true emergency exists. Heatstroke predominantly occurs in hot summer weather when dogs are left with inadequate ventilation in hot vehicles. However, heatstroke may also occur in other conditions, including:
- When an animal is left outdoors in hot and humid coniditions, without access to adequate shade or protection from the sun.
- When exercised in hot/humid weather – this is particular true of dogs who ordinarily have a tendency to over-exert themselves (e.g. ball obsessed dogs who would continue chasing or fetching their ball with a broken leg).
- When left in a car on a relatively cool day (21°C or 70°F) day – a recent study from Stanford University revealed the temperature within a vehicle may increase by an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within 1 hour even in absence of extreme outdoor temperatures!
Certain breeds are at an increased risk for heat stroke, namely brachycephalic breeds (or in English, breeds with a short nose or ‘squished’ face such as in dogs the Bulldog, Pug, Boston Terrier, Pekingnese, Boxer, etc. and in the cat the Himalayan, Persian, etc.). This is because they suffer from ineffectual panter syndrome, in that due to their conformation including stenotic nares (‘pinched’ nostrils) and elongated soft pallate, panting does not significantly cool them as in other breeds, and often leads to exacerbated respiratory difficulty even under normal circumstances. These breeds should therefore be particularly protected from excessive exercise and temperatures. Other at-risk animals include those suffering from obesity, and with concurrent respiratory disease.
What do you if your pet is suffering from hyperthermia (heat stroke)?
It is important to note that the below steps should be taken while in transit to the closest veterinarian.
- Remove your pet from the environment where the hyperthermia occurred.
- Move your pet to shaded and cool environment, and direct a fan on her.
- If possible, determine your pets temperature and record it.
- Begin to cool the body by placing cool, wet towels over the back of the neck, in the armpits, and in the groin region. You may also wet the ear flaps and paws with cool water. Directing a fan on these wetted areas will help to speed evaporative cooling, as will air conditioning in the vehicle.
- Transport to the closest veterinary facility immediately.
What NOT to do if your pet is suffering from hyperthermia.
- Do not use very cold water or ice for cooling. While ice or cold water may seem logical, its use is not advised. Cooling the innermost structures of the body will actually be delayed, as ice or cold water will cause superficial blood vessels to constrict and shrink, effectively forming an insulating layer of tissue to hold the heat inside. Tap water is more suitable for effective cooling.
- Do not attempt to force water into your pet’s mouth. You may however provide fresh cool water to offer should your pet be alert and show an interest in drinking.
- Do not leave your pet unattended for any length of time.
In conclusion, severe hyperthermia is a disease that affects nearly every system in the body. Simply lowering the body temperature is not always sufficient and may fail to address the potentially catastrophic events that often accompany this disorder. A pet suffering from hyperthermia should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.