Keep cool with your pets if dealing with heatstroke

Luna, a 2-year-old English lab, catches a Frisbee thrown by her owner Michael Spiro on July 11. Heatstroke in dogs can lead to serious problems.
Luna, a 2-year-old English lab, catches a Frisbee thrown by her owner Michael Spiro on July 11. Heatstroke in dogs can lead to serious problems. Akron Beacon Journal/TNS

Heatstroke is a topic for pet owners every year, but it is an important one. There are so many aspects to consider, so it’s always worth reviewing.

We most commonly think of heatstroke in pets when they are left in a car or have been out playing at the beach or on the boat all day without any water or shade. But your pets can get overheated by just sitting in the shade on a stifling, breezeless afternoon.

The animals most prone to this kind of overheating are pets with short noses like Persian cats or brachycephalic breeds of dogs such as bull dogs and Boston terriers. These animals often have difficulty breathing already, with small nostrils, long soft palates that occlude their airways and nasal passages that try to fit everything a long nose has into a very small space. When these animals have to breathe even harder, their airways begin to swell from the effort of breathing, turning it all into a vicious cycle. This can also happen in heart patients that have been having respiratory distress for a few hours.

Prolonged and repeated seizures will increase the body temperature dramatically from repetitive muscle contractions, much like running frantically in the yard.

The outward signs that your pet is in distress will be open mouth breathing or panting without recovering. The tongue will become bright red and the body will begin to feel hot to the touch. Often these animals are too busy breathing to bother getting up for a drink of cooling water. Or they drink so much water that they vomit it back up.

Getting a temperature using a rectal thermometer is the most accurate way of diagnosing heat exhaustion. Anything over 104 degrees is suspect.

The best way to cool down your pet is to get it wet. Cool water in a bathtub, getting the body wet down to the skin, a cooling fan — all this should be done as soon as you know that there is a problem. But be careful not to cool the body too quickly. No ice cubes in the water, no alcohol on the pads. This causes vasoconstriction — constriction of bloodvessels — and prevents proper cooling down because we just decreased the circulation to the appendages. Most importantly, if the heavy breathing goes on for more than half an hour, your pet needs to see the vet.

Intravenous fluids are most effective for decreasing body temperature, and of course the cause of the problem needs to be addressed. If too much time elapses, the body can go into shock, DIC (where the blood starts to clot everywhere), or brain swelling can occur. Being in the competent hands of your veterinarian can save your pet’s life.

Feel free to email questions to or write to her care of the Marathon Veterinary Hospital, 5001 Overseas Highway, Marathon, FL 33050.