Your pet is a family member, but their physiology is different from yours for certain bodily functions. By understanding these differences, you can better protect them from the sometimes extreme California heat. Our team at Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services wants to explain the science behind the heat’s effect on your pet.

Body cooling mechanisms for dogs, cats, and their humans

You know your pet feels the rise in temperature, because they are constantly blocking the air conditioner vent, but you never see them sweating. How do they manage the heat?

  • Humans — People manage heat mainly through sweating and radiation. Sweat glands release sweat on your skin and, as the sweat evaporates, your body cools. Heat is released by radiation when blood vessels under the skin dilate, increasing blood flow to the skin, where the blood can be cooled before returning to the warmer inner body.
  • Dogs — Dogs have two types of sweat glands. The merocrine sweat glands, located in your dog’s paw pads, function similarly to human sweat glands. Apocrine glands function to release pheromones to help them identify other dogs by scent. Dogs’ sweat glands are not adequate to effectively cool them in a hot environment, and they rely mostly on panting to cool themselves. As they pant, air flows over their tongue, nasal passages, and lining of their lungs, resulting in evaporation and cooling. Vasodilation also occurs around their ears and face to help cool the blood as circulation occurs. A dog’s coat also acts as insulation that holds heat in when temperatures are cold, and protects them from the heat when the temperatures are hot. Their coat can also protect them from sunburn, which is why you should never shave your dog.
  • Cats — Cats also have sweat glands in their paw pads, and they pant similarly to dogs in excessive heat, but cats mostly rely on saliva evaporating from their coat to cool themselves. This is why you may notice your cat grooming more on hot days. Your cat’s coat also helps insulate them from the heat and should never be shaved.

Your pet’s cooling mechanisms are not as effective as sweating, making them more prone to heatstroke. Certain brachycephalic breeds, such as pugs, Pekingnese, and Persian cats, are at higher risk, because their scrunched facial structure does not allow for proper air circulation as they pant. Older pets, puppies, kittens, overweight pets, and those affected by a heart or respiratory issue are also more at risk.

Heatstroke’s effect on pets

Pets’ normal temperature is 101 to 102.5 degrees. Temperatures above 105 degrees indicate heatstroke, and are a veterinary emergency. If your pet’s temperature is not lowered promptly, several body systems can be damaged by inflammation.

  • Cardiovascular — Initially, heart rate increases, but as inflammation increases, the heart’s ability to pump is diminished, resulting in decreased blood circulation, hypotension, and shock.
  • Nervous — As blood circulation is reduced, the brain does not receive adequate oxygen to function. The blood-brain barrier begins to break down, and swelling, bleeding, and necrosis occur.
  • Respiratory — The lung tissue is damaged, resulting in swelling in the lungs, and respiratory distress.
  • Renal — Direct thermal damage and inadequate perfusion lead to acute kidney failure.
  • Gastrointestinal — The intestinal wall is compromised, leading to bacteria leaking into the bloodstream. The bacteria can settle in other organs, such as the heart or kidneys.
  • Coagulation — A condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) can be triggered, causing bleeding from numerous sites.

First aid for pets affected by heatstroke

If your pet exhibits heatstroke signs, such as excessive panting and drooling, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and collapse, take them to a cool, well ventilated area immediately, and offer them water. You can begin cooling them down using a cool water bath or wet towels, and get them to the Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services as soon as possible, where we will provide immediate emergency care and ongoing advanced critical care.

Preventing heatstroke in pets

Heatstroke is extremely dangerous for your pet, and preventing them from overheating can save their lives. A few tips to keep your pet cool include:

  • Vehicles — Never leave your pet in a parked vehicle. Temperatures can become dangerously high rapidly, and your quick stop at the grocery store could end in tragedy.
  • Water — Always provide fresh, clean water for your pet. Dehydrated pets are more susceptible to heatstroke. Offer multiple water sources, and clean the water bowls and change out the water frequently. When you take your pet on outings, take bottled water and a bowl, and offer them a drink often.
  • Exercise — Do not exercise your pet on hot, humid days and, if possible, walk them during the cooler times of day.
  • Air conditioning — Do not turn your air conditioner off when you leave for the day. Temperatures inside your home could become dangerously high.
  • High risk pets — If your pet is brachycephalic, geriatric, a puppy or kitten, overweight, or affected by a heart or respiratory issue, keep them inside an air conditioned home, except for short potty breaks.

Knowing how heat affects your pet will help you keep them cool when the mercury starts to rise. If you think your pet may be suffering a heatstroke, do not hesitate to contact our team at Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.