The Ultimate Guide to Heatstroke in Dogs and Cats & How to Treat It
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
The promise of hot summer weather never fails to have Canadians shedding their winter coats with relief—if only it were so easy for our pets! Whether your summer plans involve days at the beach, tackling your favourite trails, or hiding from the sun altogether, it’s important to remember that just because you’re comfortable with the higher temperatures, doesn’t mean your dog or cat is. Monitoring their temperature in the dog days of summer is more than just keeping your pet comfortable, it’s keeping them safe!
When we worry about our pets in the heat, we’re worried about heatstroke; it’s the most severe of heat-related illnesses and can be fatal. However, heatstroke doesn’t just pop out of nowhere—it comes with plenty of warning signs, and can be easily avoided. With just a bit of foreknowledge, we can recognize the signs of our pets overheating and take immediate steps to correct their temperature before it becomes a critical issue. After all, summers are meant to be enjoyed, not fretted over, and just a little bit of pet safety education means your pet can accompany you on all your summer adventures while staying cool, happy, and healthy!
Pets Most at Risk for Overheating
Not all pets handle the heat equally! The first step in your summer preparation and temperature management plan is knowing if your pet is particularly susceptible to overheating. This way, you can be one step ahead of the game in avoiding heatstroke.
AKA short or flat-faced breeds. This includes French and English Bulldogs, Boxers, Boston Terriers, Pekingese, Pugs, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus, Bull Mastiffs, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels…to name a few. For cats, the most common breeds are the Himalayan and Persian cats. These breeds struggle more with breathing, and since dogs primarily manage their heat by panting (more on that later), you can understand why these pups might need a little extra TLC over the summer. Try taking shorter walks in the cooler time of day, and ensure they have access to cool water whenever they need it.
Long Haired, Thick-Coated Dog Breeds
Including, but not limited to, Siberian Huskies, Sheepdogs, Alaskan Malamutes, Samoyeds, Pomeranians, Chow Chows, and Akita Inus. This one is fairly intuitive: these dogs were mostly bred for colder climates, and their thick fur coats reflect that. That doesn’t mean they don’t need that coat in the summer, though! While upping your dog’s grooming routine over the warmer months is a great way to help your dog manage the heat, resist the urge to shave it all off: their fur works to keep them cool in the heat and protect them from sunburn.
Triple Coated Cats
This includes Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest cats, Birmans, Angoras, Balinese, Persians, Himalayans, Ragdolls, Somalís, Domestic Long Hairs, and American Curls. Like thick-coated dogs, these cats will benefit from some quality time with a de-shedding brush to lighten their furry load.
If your dog weighs over 50kg, then they’re three times more likely to develop heatstroke than smaller dogs—after all, it takes a lot more energy (and therefore heat!) for them to move their bulk around. Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards, English Mastiffs, Dogue de Bordeaux, the Newfoundland and Landseer all fall into this category.
Overweight Dogs or Cats
For the same reason that giant breeds tend to run hot, a pet packing some extra pounds will also be more susceptible to overheating. Their additional bulk means they’re using more energy, and that extra layer of fat provides even more insulation. If your pet borders on the chunky side, ensure they’re getting lots of water and limit their exercise to moderate, low-intensity activities in the cooler times of the day.
Dogs can be natural people-pleasers, but some dogs don’t know when to stop! Dogs with high energy levels that just go…and go…and keep going, are having too much fun to pay attention to their temperature levels. That leaves it up to you to monitor it for them! Make use of cooler temperatures at dawn and dusk to get out as much of their energy as possible and let them relax during the hottest times of the day. Also employ lots of “brain-games” during hot weather to mentally exhaust them when the intense exercise they crave is just not possible.
Dark Coated Pets
We all know that wearing black on a sunny day just makes us a magnet for the heat, and our pets are no different. If your dog or cat has a black or dark coat, they’re more likely to overheat this summer, so a little extra diligence in protecting them from the sun will go a long way.
Very Young or Very Old Pets
Very young puppies and kittens—we’re talking under 4 weeks—can’t regulate their temperature, and senior pets also gradually lose the ability to efficiently acclimatize. If you’re caring for a young or senior pet, they may need more attention and care in the heat of summer, even if they don’t meet any of the other stipulations listed above.
Signs of Heatstroke in Dogs and Cats
Heatstroke doesn’t come out of nowhere, but it can happen quickly! From the moment your pet stops being able to compensate for the heat, it can take only 5 - 10 minutes for them to succumb to heatstroke. This becomes a particular risk if your pet is left in a hot car. Think you can make it into the store and back out in 5 minutes? You probably can’t, and it’s not worth gambling with your pet’s life on. If you can’t sit in a hot car for more than a minute without breaking into a sweat, it’ll be dangerously hot for your pet.
Speaking of breaking into a sweat, if you’ve ever gone for a jog with your dog, you may have noticed that while you both come back breathing hard, only one of you is dripping with sweat. This is because dogs and cats cool themselves differently than we do. Humans have sweat glands all over our bodies, meaning we have a huge surface area to offload excess heat. Dogs and cats, however, only have sweat glands on their paws, and they don’t use it as their primary method of temperature regulation.
This means that we can’t rely on what we would consider standard cues like sweating to understand if our pets are overheating. Here are 8 signs to look out for if your dog or cat is struggling with the heat.
1. Heavy Panting
As we mentioned, since dogs and cats mainly sweat through glands in their paw pads, panting is their major way of regulating their body temperature. They draw in moisture (some of it from their wet noses), which captures heat inside their body that they can exhale, cooling themselves from the inside out. It’s an efficient system, though it has limits, which is why it’s essential to keep track of your pet’s breathing this summer.
Rapid panting is a sign your dog is getting too hot and is struggling to keep up and cool themselves off; panting to the point of near hyperventilation means your dog is on the brink of heatstroke.
Brachycephalic or flat-faced breeds like pugs tend to snort when overheating—this will be a clear sign to get them cooled down immediately.
On the other hand, cats are naturally desert animals (even luxuriously long-haired breeds) and are better adapted to regulating their heat than dogs. Don’t take it lightly if you see your cat panting heavily on a hot day! Panting without exertion on a hot day means they’re already overheating or have a serious medical condition—or both—and require immediate veterinary attention.
It’s no secret that staying hydrated is a safe bet to stave off heatstroke (that goes for you AND your pet!) After heavy panting, the biggest tell-tale sign of overheating is foamy or thick and sticky saliva. This is because your pet has become so dehydrated that they’re not able to drool normally because their body simply can’t spare the moisture.
If you’re not sure if your pet is getting enough water, simply offer it to them, and their actions will let you know. Drinking like they can’t get enough? That’s a strong indication that your dog or cat is dehydrated. Not interested in drinking? They’re handling themselves fine, for now. This is absolutely not a hard and fast rule though— if your pet is already too dehydrated and they are lethargic, they may not drink despite desperately needing the water.
Additionally, an unusual and abrupt interest in chowing down on grass is a sign that your dog is looking for water, so be sure to carry a designated water bottle for your dog on walks.
3. Rapid Pulse
An unusually rapid pulse can be cause for concern—it means your pet’s heart is working hard to circulate blood faster to cool them down. You can record your dog’s pulse by gently feeling the beat near the inside top of their hind leg (press gently with a few fingers, not your thumb, into the skin of the groin at the top point of the hind leg). To find a cat’s heartbeat, place your hand over the left side of their chest, just behind the front leg. Get to know your pet’s average pulse before you need it in an emergency, and check it when they’re calm and awake.
4. Inflamed or Red Eyes
The whites of your dog or cat’s eyes should be just that—white. Red, bloodshot, or inflamed eyes can be a warning sign.
5. Colour Change in Gums
The gums of a healthy dog or cat should be pink—think like bubble gum pink. If their gums become pale or white, it could be an early sign of heatstroke. Gums that appear dark red or even purple indicate an even more serious sign that they’re suffering!.
An overheating dog or cat may behave unusually; watch for restlessness, confusion, weakness or stumbling.
7. Vomiting or Diarrhea
If you spot any blood in the stool, this will be a more severe sign of impending heatstroke.
If your pet becomes seriously affected by heatstroke, they will collapse, but not before you see some of the above symptoms.
What to Do If You Suspect Overheating
If you notice your pet suffering from any of the symptoms listed above, then the sooner they get help means the less likely you are to have a real emergency on your hands. In any level of heat exhaustion (the stage right before heatstroke) your pet should see a vet, but there are some immediate steps you can take to safely cool them down first.
Remove from Direct Sunlight
This should seem somewhat intuitive, but it bears saying regardless: get your pet into a cool and shaded environment right away—ideally in an air-conditioned room or in front of a fan, but prioritize getting out of the sun at the very least.
Use a hose or tub of water to cool down your dog—cats might respond better to a watering can (or the hose on a gentle setting) or by stroking them with a damp cloth. Using cool water, not cold or frozen, will release any heat trapped in their fur and cool them down quickly without shocking their system. You can put an animal into shock by cooling them too quickly, so act quickly, but don’t panic and put them in a tub of ice water.
After your initial hose down, if your pet is conscious and responsive, offer them a small drink of cool, fresh water. Again, this isn’t the time for icy water, as you’re trying to lower their temperature in a controlled manner. Don’t let them guzzle water, either; a dehydrated dog or cat can’t handle too much water too quickly, and it can make them even sicker. Never try to force your dog or cat to drink.
Continue to Cool Down
Continue to pour cool water over their head and body until their symptoms begin to settle, focusing on their back, abdomen, inner thighs, paws, and behind their ears. If you have access to ice packs, don’t place them directly on your dog or cat, but wrap them in dry towels first.
Emergency Vet Visit
Heat exhaustion and subsequent heatstroke is an emergency, and your pet should still be checked by a vet, regardless of any care you have given them. Even if it looks like they’re recovering from their initial symptom(s) of overheating, heatstroke can cause significant internal organ damage, so it’s best to get them a clean bill of health as soon as possible.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
In an ideal world, you’ll never have to use any emergency cooling measures for your pet. Just being conscious of the heat and making slight adaptations to your usual routine can be enough to keep your pet as cool as a fresh summer breeze! Here’s our top heatstroke prevention tips:
Avoid High-Intensity Exercise
Working out in the blistering heat might seem like a miserable time to us, but some pets—high drive breeds, in particular—don’t know when to stop and will keep going until they’re exhausted!
Try sticking to low-intensity exercise and avoid the hottest time of the day by going out in the early morning or dusk. You can also help keep your pet from heating up too much by taking short walks in the shade or doing cooler activities, like swimming. If your dog can’t contain their energy on their own, you might need to stick to leashed walks rather than letting them run themselves ragged at the off-leash dog park.
Triple-coated cats are most at risk of overeating, so avoid allowing them to run around in the heat as much as possible.
Avoid Hot Concrete
If the concrete feels too hot for you against your bare hand or foot, then it’s definitely too hot for your pet’s sensitive paw pads. Not only can hot pavement burn your pet’s feet, but it will radiate heat throughout their body, especially if they’re trotting along on black asphalt. Walk on grass or in the shade whenever possible, or use protective booties for their feet where necessary.
Stick to the Shade
Avoiding direct sunlight is the name of the game when it comes to preventing heatstroke. Keep your pet out of the sun whenever possible; you can even set up a tent or umbrella in a shaded spot with plenty of water and an elevated bed for your pet’s ideal summer experience. You might even consider setting up a garden sprinkler or a durable kiddie pool for a fun way for your pet to cool down. Finally, never leave your pet alone outside in the heat, especially if they don’t have access to shade and water.
Take the Cool With You
Frozen cooling mats, vests, and bandanas that can be activated with water are convenient and helpful for heat-intolerant dogs and cats all year round. You can also consider getting UV protective clothing for your pup’s outdoor adventures to reduce their sun exposure.
Dogs and cats with dark or black coats will appreciate cooling bandanas and mats the most, as their fur attracts the most heat. On the other hand, pets with white, light, or thin fur might benefit from UV clothing more, as they’re more susceptible to sunburn and its associated risks, like skin cancers.
Always pack at least one litre of water for you and your pet while on your walks—after all, staying hydrated is a key element of avoiding heatstroke. You can encourage your dog to keep hydrated with various frozen treats: try freezing a Kong stuffed with pumpkin and peanut butter or freezing a metal bowl with water and some of their favourite treats. Even just placing their favourite treats into a pool or bath and letting them go bobbing for it can be a fun way to entice them to drink!
We’re big fans of frozen treats—check out some of our favourite easy and healthy frozen treats for your dog or cat this summer!
Air Conditioning and Fans
On the real scorching summer days, your pets love the A/C and fans just as much as you do—especially when they’re stuck somewhere without fresh, moving air, like in a stuffy room or hot car.
Never, ever leave your pet alone in a hot car. Remember that heatstroke can develop quickly—even that quick duck into the grocery store can be enough to cause irreversible damage to your pet, with potentially fatal consequences.
A well-groomed pet is a happy pet, especially during the summer months. While you might be tempted to shave off all your own hair when it starts getting hot, you’d be exposing your dog or cat to more extreme temperatures (and sunburn!) if you gave them a turn with the clippers.
But a trim? Absolutely. Get your vet or groomer’s opinion on what would be the most suitable summer-do for your dog’s breed, and don’t neglect some serious quality time with a brush to help them keep their coat as light and fresh as possible.
As for your cat, they are—as we mentioned above—incredibly well-adapted to moderating their own temperature. While they’ll benefit from a brush every now and then, they’ll probably maintain their own grooming routine over the summer. Not to mention, we can just about guarantee that your cat would never forgive you if you gave them a shave. Best to not risk it.
Your pet can obviously benefit from a healthy diet year-round, but the heat of summer, in particular, is not the best time to be packing a few extra layers of insulation. Reducing the risk of obesity makes your pet less sensitive to the heat and lowers the chance of numerous other health issues, like orthopedic disease and diabetes.
DIY Your Own Cool
We’ve looked into some of the best supplies you can have on hand to help your dog or cat handle the summer heat in our 7 Summer Essentials for Dogs and Cats articles, but when the true dog days of summer strike, sometimes you need to get creative. Here are some easy DIY items you can throw together to help your pet cool down—you might enjoy some of them yourself, too!
Fill a shallow bowl filled with ice cubes or frozen water bottles and place in front or behind a fan.
Alternatively, place a spray bottle with water in the freezer for a few minutes and gently mist your pet in front of the fan. Don’t want to wait for the water to chill? Fill the bottle ¼ full of crushed ice and the rest with water and shake before spraying.