Hot weather can be a health risk for pets
Hot summertime temperatures bring lots of opportunity for outdoor activities. But these temperatures also bring increased health risks for pets. Car temperatures can rise quickly into dangerous ranges, pavement can be extremely hot and dehydration can become a problem. As a result, it is critical to think ahead when taking your pet on trips around town or on extended travel.
The normal body temperature of dogs and cats is 100.5-102.5 F. It is critical to normal body function that temperature is maintained in this range. When the body temperature gets too high, heatstroke can occur. Heatstroke can cause serious damage to the body and even result in death.
When environmental temperatures rise above about 80 F, dogs pant, which promotes evaporative cooling as moisture on the mucous membranes evaporates and by moving more blood to the skin to promote heat transfer out of the body. Moving more blood to the skin involves dilating blood vessels and moving more blood with the heart.
However, this works only in the dog in places where the hair is thin like the ears and tongue. Sweat glands in the dog and cat are only found in the feet so sweating is not effective for cooling. Contact with a cool surface or with moving air can also help to promote heat loss from the body.
When the environmental temperature rises above what is considered a neutral temperature (~80 F), the body has to work harder to release heat. Depending on the health condition of the pet, there can be significant stress on the body and variation in the ability to release the heat. For example, a dog or cat with heart problems can have difficulty responding with increased heart rate and blood flow. A dehydrated dog or cat will have reduced ability to use evaporative cooling through panting.
Dogs with short muzzles and elongated soft palates (extra tissue in the throat) have more difficulty dissipating heat through panting. Obesity predisposes to over heating. These health and conformation factors mean that these individuals will be less tolerant of high environmental temperatures.
If left in the sun and especially if left in an enclosed space like a car, a pet can rapidly overheat because the body cannot response well enough to keep body temperature normal. Once the body temperature reaches 106 F, irreversible organ damage can occur. Multiple body systems fail at temperatures above 109 F. The severity of the damage caused by excess heat depends on the health status of the pet and the duration of the increased body temperature. Getting the body cooled has a significant benefit for recovery.
Heatstroke is such a serious health problem that Colorado has a new law that goes into effect Aug. 9 that allows a person to break the window of a car to rescue a dog if they think there is danger that the dog might die if left in the car. The law requires reasonable efforts to contact the owner and police before breaking into the car.
Signs that heat stress is becoming a problem include restlessness and anxiety, excessive or heavy panting, weakness and confusion. As the body struggles and the heat worsens, the gums may become pale or gray, breathing becomes shallow and can eventually become slow or absent. Collapse, seizures, coma and death can occur if the excess heat is not released.
The best ways to prevent heatstroke and complications from excess heat is to plan. Avoid placing your pet in a compromising situation. Air temperature in a car can rise rapidly into the 140 F range. Temperature in a car can be excessive even when parked in the shade. Make sure that your pet has plenty of fresh cool water. Provide a cool area that is easily accessed by the pet. Be aware of health problems that can compromise your pet’s ability to regulate temperature.
If you have concerns about your pet’s health that could compromise your pet’s ability to handle heat, contact your veterinarian. A veterinarian should be contacted immediately for pets that are suffering from heatstroke. Early and aggressive therapy is essential.
Ron Carsten was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.