Heatstroke in pets can cause major problems, here's why and how to avoid it

If you can, get a children's wading pool for when your pet is outside.
If you can, get a children's wading pool for when your pet is outside.

Heatstroke -- these words send a tremble through my body every time I hear that a patient is coming in with suspected heatstroke. Why?

When people get heatstroke, they almost always need to be hospitalized. It can be a life-threatening condition. More commonly, we suffer from heat exhaustion, the stage before heatstroke. When we ignore some of the early warning signs our body gives us, we start getting lightheaded, then headachey and nauseated.

By this time, if we can, we head indoors, drink tepid water and electrolytes and sit in front of a fan. And we bounce back from that in a day or so and all is well, right? So why do we see heatstroke more commonly in animals?

Unfortunately for animals, there is usually a very human component that contributes to the severity of heatstroke in our pets. Whether it be that we don't supply enough water in the yard or when we take them to the beach or sandbar, or forget that shade is vital in cooling down, even if there is water in which to play.

Dogs especially play with abandon, will walk to the ends of the earth for us, jog in the midday heat if you say that's what is on the menu of activities. Some, especially the little guys, know to put their feet down and say enough is enough and the house is the other way, but our hunters and pleasers will not.

Remember, panting is a dog's only way, other than sweating through the pads of the feet, to thermoregulate -- try to lose excess body heat.

But not only dogs overheat; rabbits in hutches, birds left in a window that gets full sun, cats inadvertently stuck in a garage and, most commonly, anything -- people or animals -- left in a car this time of year with the windows up.

Heatstroke starts with the body temperature soaring to above 104 degrees, and then higher. At 109, all the cells in the body are cooking and dying, red blood cells disintegrate, the liver and kidneys shut down and the brain begins to swell. Even the bone marrow begins to die. The body goes into shock.

What can we do? As soon as you even suspect heat stroke, get your pet wet. Not with ice water but just cool, not, cold water, i.e. a hose, pool or bathtub. If the temperature comes down too quickly, we can damage the red blood cells even further and hasten clotting in the body as it is trying to regulate itself in some disordered way.

So get your pet wet and keep air flowing to it. Moving air will help cool the body, but also move air into the lungs of your pet. The effort of breathing is increasing body temperature and causing the lung tissue to swell, so anything to ease this is helpful.

Once you have taken these important steps, call your vet. Don't wait until your pet is unresponsive and unwilling to move.

At the hospital, IV fluids will help with the temperature regulation and repair fluid loss. Depending on the other clinical signs and blood work, the next steps will be determined. It can take up to 48 or 72 hours to realize the full extent of severe heatstroke, which is why good systemic support early on is so important to increase survival through such an event.

Yes, heatstroke can be fatal.

So please, watch your pets closely and think ahead when you take them along anywhere, even just to a bar on a hot stuffy day. Remember, there is no such thing as a quick grocery run. And dogs don't wear shoes. Think on that.

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