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Preventing Heatstroke in Pets

by Dr. Ian Kupkee

We were barely two days into the official start of summer when I received a text.  It was from a colleague with whom we had dinner plans, telling me he had to cancel. An emergency had rushed in just as he was leaving, a dog that had collapsed in the yard from heat exhaustion. The dog did not make it. Her owners were devastated. It didn’t seem that hot outside.

Then there was the heartbreaking post that showed up in my wife’s Facebook feed. Someone in a dachshund group had left their three doxies in the yard while they went to work. Two of them had died by the time the owners returned.

Last month, three dogs were lost to heat exhaustion when they were accidentally left in a Miramar dog groomer’s van. Then there were the two that were recently rushed into our clinic. One survived. The other did not.

For the past few years, South Florida summers have been consistently breaking records for scorching temperatures.  Even those of us who have lived here for years have been taken by surprise.  Our clinic has treated pets who were outside on cloudy days, or who were in the garage when their owners realized they were in distress.  Pet owners will often report there were multiple dogs in the same environment, yet only one seemed affected by the heat.  While any pet can suffer from heatstroke, some are at greater risk than others.  Let’s take a look at some of these more vulnerable specimens.

Brachycephalic Breeds

Sometimes referred to as “smush-faced” breeds, brachycephalic dogs and cats have been selectively bred with relatively short muzzles and noses.  The throats and breathing passages of these pets tend to be flatter and more undersized when compared to their non-brachycephalic counterparts. In other words, even in ideal weather conditions, they must work even harder to breathe. The excessive panting involved with trying to regulate soaring body temperatures can quickly push these animals over the edge.  Persian, Burmese, and Himalayans, are some of the more popular cats in this category.  Brachycephalic dog breeds include, but are not limited to Pugs, English Bulldogs, Lhasa Apsos, Shih-Tzus, Boxers, Boston Terriers, French Bulldogs, and many others. Ask your veterinarian if your pet falls into this category, as special care must be taken to ensure their summertime safety.

Low Riders

Short legged dogs such as Dachshunds and many toy breeds are naturally very close to the ground.  Since ground temperatures can range anywhere from 10-40 degrees higher than the ambient temperature, it’s easy to see how these little guys can get into trouble quickly. If you are out and about with your small dog and he whines or cries to be picked up, it’s possible he is not being needy or spoiled. Err on the side of caution and get him off the ground.

Senior pets, obese pets, and pets who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions such as cardiac disease are also at a higher risk for heat-related trauma.

Clinical Signs of Heat Exhaustion

A pet who is suffering from heat exhaustion may pant excessively and rapidly. She may show signs of dizziness, weakness, seizures, or collapse. Her tongue and/or gums may be bright red, although pale gums may be noted as well. Lethargy and diarrhea are common, as is vomiting. If your pet displays any of these symptoms, you must take immediate action.

First Aid for Heat Exhaustion

Pet parents, I cannot stress this enough - first aid is NOT a substitute for veterinary care! Even if Fluffy bounces back and “seems fine”, kidney failure, electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, and organ shutdown are invisible, yet common after effects of heat emergencies.  You must bring her to a veterinary hospital to stave off these effects, regardless of how successful your first aid may appear to be.

Remember the pet first aid kit we discussed a few months ago?   If you do not have one, get one now, before you find yourself dealing with a time-sensitive emergency.  Your first aid kit should include a rectal thermometer for babies, and some lubricant.  If you can do so without getting bitten, take your pet’s temperature.  A dog’s normal, resting body temperature is between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  If your dog registers at 104 or higher, she’s in trouble.

If your your pet is experiencing heat exhaustion, wrap her with towels soaked in cool - not cold - water. You can also shower her with cool water from the tub or hose, but do not spend more than a few minutes doing this.  If she has collapsed, skip this step entirely.

If your pet  is not breathing, begin CPR and call for help.  You will need a second set of hands to start bringing down her body temperature while CPR is being administered. Click here for a review of pet CPR techniques, and don’t forget to read the article for tips on modifying the technique for cats.

All heatstroke patients should have ice packs, or bags of frozen vegetables placed under their forelegs (the armpits, if you will), at the back of the head where the neck meets the skull, and tucked into the groin area. Cover her with the cool, wet  towels and start driving to the vet. NEVER give aspirin or fever reducers intended for humans, even if they are labelled for children or babies! These can cause potentially fatal complications.  Offer water or ice cubes if your pet is conscious, but do not force them down her throat. Recheck her body temperature every fifteen minutes. At 103, you are making progress, but don’t stop first aid, and keep driving to the vet.  If you have a passenger, have them call your vet from the road and tell them you are on the way. We can increase your pet’s chances of survival if drugs and IV fluids are dosed and ready to go when your pet arrives. Finally...

The Best Medicine of All

Prevention! Our pets have a limited ability to cool themselves. They do not sweat like we do, so while fans are great for cooling humans, they do not do enough to help our pets. And remember, our pets are perpetually clad in fur coats.  Keep pets inside during the heat of the day, and limit walks and strenuous exercise to evenings and early mornings.  Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security regarding “indoor” facilities. A garage is not sufficient shelter unless it is air-conditioned. Perhaps most importantly, pets should never be left unattended in cars, not even if the AC is running. A friend of ours is a police officer who responded to a call of a small dog left in a car.  The engine was running, and the owner had left the AC on for her pet. The dog, however, had jumped on the dashboard, and accidently hit the AC compressor control. The compressor switched off, hot air quickly filled the vehicle, and the little dog did not survive. It was a tragic accident that happened despite the owner’s careful planning and good intentions.  Animals are predictably unpredictable, and heat related trauma sets in way too quickly to leave anything to chance.

If you must take your pet with you in the car, take extra care to ensure she is not forgotten. Place something you know you will need when you arrive next to your pet’s location. This can include your wallet, briefcase, handbag or cellphone. Make it impossible to grab these necessary items without seeing - and remembering -  your pet.

If history is any indicator, our summers are only going to get hotter. But with a little foresight and a few extra precautions, we can ensure our furry friends are with us for many safe and fun-filled seasons to come.

To visit the NBC6.com "All About Animals" section, click here.

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Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee?

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Send him an email by clicking here.

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