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Shea Cox
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Preventing Heat Stroke
“Sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly”
A sunny day can be tough on pups.

We have been experiencing idyllic temperatures in Berkeley, Calif., these past couple of weeks—mostly sunny days and mid-70s bliss. Perfect weather for a fun-filled outing with our pets, right? For the most part, the answer is “yes” but these are the kind of days where we have to be extra cautious with our pets. At the veterinary hospital where I practice, I have had three dogs die from heat stoke in the past three weeks. These were not dogs left in unattended cars or as the result of negligent owners. They were really the result of not realizing that “sunny and 70” can mean “sunny and deadly.”

Two of the deaths were Bulldogs, one who played ball for a short 20 minutes outside and the other who went on his “normal daily walk.” The other loss was a Golden Retriever; the owner let him play at the park for an hour with the neighborhood kids, who always loved to spend time with him, such heartbreaking loss for everyone involved.

Many people are unaware of how dogs process heat and how easily they can succumb to heat stroke. Dogs cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as humans because they depend upon rapid breathing (panting) to exchange their warm body air for cooler environmental air. Therefore, when the air temperature is close to body temperature, cooling by rapid breathing is no longer an efficient process, and dogs can succumb to heat stroke in a relatively short time period.

Heatstroke can occur in many conditions that include:

  • Leaving your pet in the car with “the windows cracked.” We all still see this despite the warnings. Here’s the math: When left in a car on a relatively cool 75-degree day, the temperature within a vehicle can increase an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within one hour. That equates to 115 degrees in the car, whether the windows are “cracked” or not.
  • When an animal is left outdoors in hot, humid conditions without adequate shade.
  • When an animal is exercised in hot or humid weather: I have treated pets that have developed heat stroke while out for a routine walk, such as the Bulldog. One contributing factor is the fact that short-legged dogs are closer to the pavement, which radiates additional heat, contributing to the development of heat stress or stroke.
  • Other predisposing factors that increase the risk of heat stroke include obesity and being a brachycephalic (short-nosed) breed such as a Pekingese, Pug, Lhasa Apso, Boston Terrier or Bulldog. These dogs suffer from ineffectual panter syndrome, which basically means that their elongated palate in a short face interferes with their ability to pant and can be fatal.

Clinical signs of developing heat stroke:

Heat stroke is an emergency that requires immediate recognition and prompt treatment. A dog’s normal body temperature is 101.5 degrees plus or minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, and any time the body temperature is higher than 105 degrees, a truly life-threatening emergency exists. Initially the pet appears distressed, and will pant excessively and become restless. As the hyperthermia progresses, the pet may drool large amounts of saliva from the nose and/or mouth. The pet may become unsteady on his feet. You may notice the gums turning blue/purple or bright red, which is due to inadequate oxygen.

Severe hyperthermia is a disease that affects nearly every system in the body. Simply lowering the body temperature fails to address the potentially catastrophic events that often accompany this disorder. A pet suffering from hyperthermia should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for appropriate care. There are many life-threatening after affects that happen to a pet’s body following an episode of heat stroke, and early treatment will give your pet the best chance for survival.

What to do:

  • Move your pet to shaded and cool environment, and direct a fan on him or her.
  • If possible, determine rectal temperature and record it.
  • Begin to cool the body by placing cool, wet towels over the back of the neck, in the armpits and in the groin region. You should also wet the earflaps and paws with cool water. Directing a fan on these wetted areas will help to speed evaporative cooling.
  • Transport to the closest veterinary facility immediately.

What NOT to do:

  • Do not use cold water or ice for cooling!
  • Do not overcool the pet; most pets with hyperthermia have body temperatures greater than 105 degrees, and a reasonable goal of cooling is to reduce your pet’s body temperature to between 102.5 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit while transporting him or her to the closest veterinary facility.
  • Do not attempt to force water into your pet’s mouth, but you may have fresh cool water ready to offer should your pet be alert and show an interest in drinking.
  • Do not leave your pet unattended for any length of time.
  • Rapidly cooling the pet is extremely important. While ice or cold water may seem logical, its use is not advised. Cooling of the innermost structures of the body will actually be delayed, as ice or cold water will cause superficial blood vessels to shrink (vasoconstrict), effectively forming an insulating layer of tissue to hold the heat inside. Tap water is more suitable for effective cooling.

What if I see a pet in distress?

California law now prohibits leaving pets unattended in a vehicle, but I still see this (“grrrrrr”) all of the time. If you do happen see a pet in distress, you can call the local animal control agency, police or 911 for assistance. Any peace officer, humane officer or animal control officer is authorized to take all steps necessary for the removal of an animal from a motor vehicle. I have also made a downloadable flyer for you to print and leave on car windshields if you notice a pet inside of a vehicle. I wanted to create way to educate others instead of just getting worried, upset and frustrated. I know it is just a small gesture, but if it can save one pet’s life, then I’ve done my job with it.

I hope this blog has offered both awareness and education and please feel free to leave questions or comments!

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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