Heat Stroke Versus Heat Exhaustion in Pets: Key Differences

Across the U.S., high temperatures and heat-related illnesses are making headlines this summer. The incredible temperature spikes have all of us thinking about how to keep cool and stay out of danger.

Just as in humans, heat stroke is common in pets in the summer months, especially in hot, humid conditions. Heat-related illnesses don’t discriminate and can strike any pet, regardless of species, age, breed, or gender. Understanding the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and how to keep our pets cool can help save a trip to the animal ER.

How Dogs and Cats Stay Cool

Dogs have several methods of cooling themselves, but their fur coats make it even tougher to stay cool when temperatures and humidity are high. They do have some sweat glands on their paw pads, but not enough to regulate extreme heat. When they get too hot, dogs pant to dissipate excess heat, cool their internal organs and regulate their internal body temperature. But heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur when their core body temperature gets so high that panting ceases to work effectively.

Cats have a bit of a different method. As they groom themselves during hot weather, their saliva evaporates off their fur creating a cooling sensation.

Signs of Heat Exhaustion

A normal internal temperature for pets is between 101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat exhaustion occurs when the pet’s body temperature rises above normal. Other symptoms of heat exhaustion are varied, may come on gradually, and may not be noticeable until the situation is severe.

If your pet is suffering from heat exhaustion, you may notice:

  • Dark pink gums or tongue
  • Increased heart rate/ pulse
  • Lethargy
  • Persistent panting
  • Pet is actively searching for shade and water
  • Staggering or weakness, inability to walk
  • Wide, stressed eyes

Signs of Heat Stroke in Pets

Heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke, and symptoms may overlap. A pet is in heat stroke once the body reaches over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and pets can no longer cool themselves with their body’s natural cooling systems. When pets can’t cool their internal organs and systems, body temperature will continue to rise, and blood gets shunted away from vital internal organs, causing organ failure. For these reasons, dogs and cats experiencing heat stroke require immediate emergency veterinary care, or it can be fatal.

Signs include:

  • Bruising of the skin or gums (called petechiae) is most observed on the abdomen or ear pinnae.
  • Collapse
  • Dark red gums and tongue
  • Diarrhea – sometimes with blood
  • Excessive drooling
  • Fast pulse
  • Glazed-over eyes
  • Seizures
  • Staggering or uncoordinated gait
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Vomiting – sometimes with blood

Preventing Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is always serious and often fatal, but the good news is that it is relatively easily preventable. Here are some steps you can take at home to ensure your dog or cat doesn’t suffer from hot weather-related illnesses.

Never leave your pet in a car. Leaving your pet in a vehicle, even in the shade, even with windows cracked, is never a good idea. Internal temperatures in a car can reach triple digits within minutes on a warm day, and the risk of your pet suffering this way is just too real. Don’t ever take this chance! It’s not worth it.

Limit exercise. A common cause of heat exhaustion in dogs is over-exertion in warm temperatures. Limit activity to the cooler parts of the day (early morning, evening) and avoid dog parks, running, ball play, and even walks during the hotter parts of the day. Get your pet’s energy out by providing obedience exercises or a game of tug-of-war indoors instead.

Access to water and shade. Heat stroke can occur if pets are left outside without access to shade or water. In the hot parts of the day, the safest place for them is indoors in the air conditioning. But if they are outside, they must always have access to shade and fresh, cool water. A doggy pool is also a great way to allow pets to get in the water and cool off.

Stay indoors. In extreme weather, ensure pets can come indoors whenever they wish. Although we may be tempted to adjust the air conditioner to a higher temperature when we leave for work, it’s best to keep the thermostat running at a cool setting even when you aren’t home. Keep drapes and blinds closed during the day to keep your house cooler and remember to leave your pet fresh, cool water.

If your pet cannot come indoors, a garage or laundry room with a fan to circulate air can provide some shelter from the heat in some cases.

Care for pets at greater risk. Old, very young, and pets with health concerns may be at greater risk when heat and humidity are high, so observe them carefully in warm weather. Flat-faced dog breeds such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, English Bulldogs, and Pekingese are particularly susceptible to heat stroke due to their shortened airways. Overweight or obese pets are also at greater risk due to the insulation caused by fat cells and the increased heat overweight pets generate during even mild exercise. Keep these high-risk pets indoors when the temperature rises, and don’t have them do any activity–even walks–in hot weather. Keep in mind that temperatures do not need to be excessively hot to cause heat-related illnesses in these situations. One of these pets left outside in seemingly mild weather but without access to shade or water is certainly at risk.

Pets who have experienced heat stroke and survived are pre-disposed to suffering another bout due to a hypothalamic temperature set point change.  

What To Do If You Suspect Heat Illness in Your Pet

If your pet is panting excessively, actively looking for water, can’t seem to get comfortable after being in the heat, or appears in distress, you should be on high alert. Here are some steps to take if you suspect illness caused by hot weather:

  • Move your pet to the shade or air-conditioning immediately.
  • Offer fresh, cool drinking water.
  • Take their temperature with a rectal thermometer every few minutes.
  • If recommended, apply cool (not cold) towels on your pet’s belly, armpits, and groin area; continue this as needed; never submerge a pet in water as this can cause hypothermia.
  • Use a fan to ensure airflow over your pet to assist in evaporative cooling.
  • Once their temperature drops to 103 degrees, remove the fan and stop applying cool water.
  • Give us a call at 757-935-9111 and bring your pet to The COVE.

Even if your pet seems to be recovering, monitor them closely. They will still need to be monitored by a veterinarian for shock, dehydration, kidney failure, and other organ damage. We’d be happy to chat with you to determine the best option for your pet.

When Heat Stroke is an Emergency

As heat exhaustion progresses, your pet’s condition worsens. You may notice signs of shock, pale or white mucous membranes, muscle tremors, and increased lethargy or unwillingness to move. They may urinate or defecate uncontrollably, become comatose, or have seizures. Any of these signs indicate a dire emergency, and you should bring your pet to the emergency clinic without delay. Help them cool down by applying soaking wet, cool (not cold) towels to their armpits, paws, and belly while in the car on the way to us. As always, we are here 24/7/365, including nights, holidays, and weekends. If someone in your party can call us before your arrival, it would be helpful (but not necessary) to our team.

At The COVE, we aim to help pet owners prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But if you suspect your pet may suffer from these problems, please don’t hesitate to call us.

About Us

The COVE’s veterinarians and staff wholeheartedly embrace the core values of community, collaboration, commitment, compassion, and integrity. This focus ensures that pets, the people who love them, and their primary care veterinarians have as positive and affirming a healthcare experience as possible, regardless of the circumstances that bring us all together.