By Dr Elizabeth Layton on June 3, 2016 in What's New

I was asked this week what actually happens to the body during heat stroke. Everyone knows too much heat is dangerous. Now the warm weather has officially arrived, it is good to have heat safety in mind

Heat stroke happens when the body temperature gets above 105 degrees F (That’s 41 C for the metric systems lovers out there). When his happens a number of things start happening at once – here is an overview. Heat can kill cells directly, cells start dying all over the body. The body starts trying to cool itself by increasing circulation to the surface/skin. The heart tries to compensate by increasing rate and breathing rate increases too but so much blood is going to the surface of the body that the internal organs don’t get enough oxygen so more cells start dying in the liver, kidneys, brain, intestines etc. The heat also kicks off a massive inflammation response in the body which damages the cells in the intestines even more. A result of this damage is that toxins start to leak in from the intestines. These toxins eventually start to affect the already heat damaged brain and may cause brain swelling. The combined result is multiple organ failure, coma and death.

So what do you do if you are worried that your pet might have heat stroke? Take them out of the heat immediately. If you have a thermometer handy take a quick rectal temperature and record it. If not then start cooling your pet by wrapping them in a wet towel or hosing them off. Then get to a vet clinic ASAP. We will continue to cool your pet back to normal temp and also deal with some of the potential after effects. Your pet may need IV fluids for dehydration because they have likely been panting up a storm, pets with suspected brain damage can benefit from anti-inflammatory medications and if your pet is alert we will start to treat the intestine to try and prevent/treat the diarrhea that can result. The prognosis for your pet depends on how hot they have been and how long. Some pets make a full recovery and some pets, unfortunately, will die.

Some pets are at greater risk of heat stroke than others. Pets with short noses- English Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston terriers etc have a reduced ability to cool through panting so they are more at risk. Pets with heart disease or respiratory disease are less able to cool because their bodies are unable to make changes to dispel heat better. Obese pets are less able to cool because their hearts are already trying to work harder to supply a body that is too large. Elderly pets and pets with other organ compromise also do not respond as well as younger healthy pets. Keep this in mind. On very hot days plan your exercise early in the day or near dusk when the temperature is lower and there is less sun. Let elderly and sick pets choose their own amount of exercise in a fenced yard. Make sure ample water is available if you are on a walk. Either bring water with you, or a travel bowl you can fill up from water fountains on your journey. If you are on a walk and notice your pet slowing down this is a good time to take a break in the shade and have some water. Never leave your pet unattended in a car. Cars can heat up quickly. Even on a day that does not seem very hot the interior of a car can increase 40 degrees F in an hour in the sun, and this can have dire consequences for your pet.

Enjoy the beautiful weather with your four legged friends. Be aware of the risks and make sure the whole family is safe in the heat.

About the Author

Dr Elizabeth LaytonView all posts by Dr Elizabeth Layton
Dr Layton graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in 2005 and began work in mixed animal practice. Dr. Layton’s special interest is dentistry but she enjoys a variety of internal medicine and surgical cases.


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