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Heat stroke in dogs

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Heat stroke is the common term for hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature. In pets, a body temperature higher than 103°F (39.4°C) is considered hyperthermic. Elevated body temperature becomes life-threatening when it reaches 109°F (42.7°C).

The most common cause of heat stroke in cats and dogs is leaving a pet in a car without adequate ventilation. Never leave any animal in a parked vehicle in warm weather, no matter how briefly. The inside temperature can skyrocket to a dangerous level in a few short minutes, even with the windows cracked open. The pet's temperature can rise rapidly and lead to collapse, often within minutes. In dogs, body temperature is regulated primarily by panting. Dogs have only a small number of sweat glands in their footpads, so they cannot perspire to cool off.

Heat stroke in pets can also result from leaving a pet in a yard on a hot day without access to shade or water, prolonged exposure to a hair dryer, and excessive or vigorous exercise when it is hot. Too much excitement or exercise can put a dog at risk even when the temperature or humidity does not seem extreme. Flat-faced dogs (Pugs, Boxers, and Bulldogs) are at greater risk because of their narrow, short airways. Muzzled dogs may not be able to pant freely.

Any infection that causes a fever can lead to hyperthermia. Seizures or severe muscle spasms can also increase body temperature.

Heat stroke in a cat or dog is an emergency that required safe, controlled reduction of body temperature. Cool water or cold cloths may be placed on the head, stomach, underarms and feet. Rubbing alcohol may be applied to the footpads. Ice may be placed around the mouth and anus. The dog's rectal temperature should be monitored, and treatment stopped when the rectal temperature decreases to 103°F (39.4°C).

Most otherwise healthy pets can recover from heat stroke if their body temperature did not become extremely high. The prognosis depends on how high the pet's temperature climbed, how long it lasted, and the physical condition of the pet before the heat exposure.

Q&A

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke is the common term for hyperthermia, which in pets means a body temperature higher than 103°F (39.4°C).  Elevated body temperature becomes life-threatening when it reaches 109°F (42.7°C), which may occur under certain summertime conditions.

How do dogs stay cool?

In dogs, body temperature is regulated primarily by panting, which is a less efficient mechanism than the perspiration seen in people and some other animals (eg, horses).  

What are common causes of heat stroke in pets?

The most common cause of heat stroke is leaving a pet in a car, so never leave any animal in a parked vehicle in warm weather, no matter how briefly, even with the windows cracked.  Heat stroke can also result from leaving a pet in a yard on a hot day without access to shade or water, from prolonged exposure to a hair dryer, or from excessive or vigorous exercise when it is hot.  


What should I do if I see signs of heat stroke in my pet?

Heat stroke is an emergency that requires safe, controlled reduction of body temperature.  Get your dog into the shade immediately and douse it in cool water.  Use wet, cool towels to provide relief while you transport your pet safely to a veterinarian or animal emergency service.  Your vet may also advise you to use icepacks to quickly lower the temperature around the head.  

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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