Heat stroke is a term commonly used for hyperthermia (not to be confused with hypothermia, which is a loss of body heat) or elevated body temperature. Generally speaking, if a pet's body temperature exceeds 103°F, it is considered abnormal or hyperthermic. Body temperatures above 106°F without previous signs of illness are most commonly associated with exposure to excessive external or environmental heat and are often referred to as heat stroke. The critical temperature where multiple organ failure and impending death occurs is around 107°F to 109°F.
The two most common causes of heat stroke in South Carolina are leaving a dog in a car with inadequate ventilation and exposure to the summer heat. The dog's body temperature in these situations can elevate very rapidly, often within minutes, and can be exacerbated by several factors such as the breed of the dog or cat, the coat type, lack of access to water, high humidity, etc. We'll go into detail about some of these below, so keep reading!
This is a big one here in South Carolina. If the humidity is high, they are unable to cool themselves when they pant and their temperature can skyrocket very quickly. Taking a dog's temperature will tell you if there is a serious problem. A dog's temperature should not surpass 104°F. Watch the local weather report and pay close attention to humidity levels in your area. The higher the humidity, the higher the risk of hyperthermia.
Keep in mind, dogs and cats can even experience heat stroke when indoors. If your home does not have functioning AC and has insufficient air flow, they may still be at risk
This may seem rather obvious, but that doesn't stop us from treating dogs and cats with heat stroke each summer. Temperatures as low as 80-82°F can be potentially hazardous if certain precautions aren't taken. If local temperatures are in the low 80s, keep outdoor play brief and be sure to allow free access to fresh drinking water. It may also be a good idea to have water in which your dog can walk through and sit in if they begin to get too hot. Temperatures about 89°F are not suitable for safe outdoor play, and activities such as jogging with your dog should also be avoided. At these temperatures, we strongly urge you to limit outdoor activity to bathroom breaks, and if your dog has a willful energetic streak you may want to do this with them on a leash.
Your dog's ability to handle heat may depend on much more than the temperature and humidity of the air around him
Some dogs and cats are more susceptible to heat stroke than others. Dogs with double coats, or any northern breed, may find themselves at risk at temperatures that may seem otherwise safe. Examples of these breeds may include (but are not limited to) the Siberian Husky, Malamute, Borzoi, Alaskan Klee Kai, Saint Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Newfoundland, Akita, Chow Chow, Havanese, Bichon Frise, Keeshond, and breed mixes such as Goldendoodles and Labradoodles. The coats of these and many other breeds make it harder for them to cope with high heat and humidity. But coat type isn't the only concern.
Breeds with shorter snouts are also at an elevated risk of heat stroke. Breeds such as the Pug, Shih Tzu, Japanese Chin, many varieties of Pit Bull, French Bulldogs, American Bulldog, King Charles Cavalier, and Pekingese all fall into what is known as brachycephalic breeds. This means the skull is typically shorter in length than it is wide, resulting in the common "squished face" appearance that many dog fanciers love. This often restricts the airways, and even when it doesn't restrict the airways it has the unintended effect of being unable to cool the air being inhaled the way non-brachycephalic breeds often can. For example, a dolichocephalic breed is a dog with a skull that is much longer than it is wide, such as the Greyhound. Greyhounds are particularly good at cooling the air they inhale thanks to that long snout. A pug, however, would be unable to achieve the same effect. This means hotter air going in, making it harder for the dog to cool itself. With this in mind, be extra cautious if you own brachycephalic breeds when the temperatures begin rising above 78°F. But even in more mild temperatures, prolonged outdoor play can be dangerous for these breeds especially in sunny conditions.
What to do if you suspect your pet is experiencing heat stroke
Dogs suffering from heatstroke can have elevated breathing rates, dry or sticky gums, abnormal gum color, bruising in the gums, they may appear lethargic and/or disoriented, and they can even have seizures. Hyperthermia is an immediate medical emergency. Safe, controlled reduction of body temperature is a priority. Cool water (not cold) may be poured over the neck, stomach, armpits, and feet. Cool cloths may also be applied to these areas. If using cool wet cloths, these should be continually replaced, or they will start to retain heat. Ensure a continuous flow of air across the dog to help increase evaporative heat loss until treatment is received at your veterinary hospital. If you find yourself in this predicament during normal business hours, contact your veterinarian as quickly as possible. If this happens outside of your veterinarian's normal business hours, contact an emergency hospital immediately. This is a time sensitive scenario.
★During times of heat advisories, or heat/humidity that may be too high for your pet, please keep them in a safe and cool area with plenty of air flow and water. Leaving cats outdoors to find a cool spot on their own could result in their death, and the same can be said for dogs who are allowed to roam or live in outdoor pens. Bring these animals inside during extreme heat, or provide some type of cooled and shaded shelter with adequate air flow and water.
For some quick tips, check out the infographic below!