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The Dangers of Sunstroke 

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The weather might not be the brightest right now, but summer is here and there’s bound to be some sunny days soon, right? When the sun finally does show up, you might be wanting to spend some time outside with your dog, cat, or other furry friend. Before you do, have you considered preparing for the risk of sunstroke? In this blog, we’re going to explain what sunstroke is, what the dangers are, and how you can prevent it, so that you and your pets can have a fun-filled sunny summer without worry.


What is Sunstroke?

Sunstroke, or heatstroke (since it is not always caused by the sun), is a term used to describe when the body’s internal temperature gets too high. All animals have a narrow internal temperature range their body must stay within - in most mammals, it is about 37-39°c. If their internal temperature exceeds this, it is considered heatstroke.


Most healthy animals are very good at regulating their internal body temperatures, and have a number of mechanisms designed to help them cool down - this is called thermoregulation. To stay cool, dogs pant and sweat through their foot pads, allowing evaporation of moisture that takes away heat. Cats groom themselves for the same reason. Most animals, including us, also have a very good blood supply to the nose - blood is warm, so breathing in moves cold air in close proximity to the blood, helping to take away its excess heat. Finally, behaviour will often change when temperatures are high, as animals will seek shade and restrict their exercise to prevent any more overheating.


In an ideal world, these mechanism should be enough to maintain a safe internal temperature and prevent heatstroke. However, there are a number of risk factors your pets may encounter that mean heatstroke can develop more easily.


Risk Factors for Heatstroke

In hot weather, it can be harder for our pets to lose excess heat. For energetic dogs especially, running around on a hot day generates huge amounts of heat (try imagining yourself doing a marathon in August!), which can be a struggle to get rid of. This is the main reason why heatstroke is much more common in summer. It can be even more risky for short-nosed (brachycephalic) breeds of dogs, such as Boxers, Pugs, French Bulldogs, and English Bulldogs - because these dogs have such short noses, the effectiveness of cold air being wafted over warm blood is reduced, meaning they can struggle to remove excess heat in this way.


On top of all this, some diseases and conditions can mean the body has abnormal thermoregulation and a higher internal temperature already - these include heart disease, infections that cause fevers, obesity, nervous system diseases, being elderly, and others. If your pet has any of these conditions, you should be especially careful in hot weather.


Effects of Heatstroke

An animal’s body is made up of millions of tiny cells, which require microscopic proteins, called enzymes, to function. These enzymes all have very specific temperatures they like to work at - if the internal temperature gets too high, enzymes start to denature (break down), and stop working. This means cells stop functioning, which can be catastrophic for an animal.


All of that looks very bad viewed down a microscope, but how does heatstroke actually affect our dogs and cats? Why is it a problem? Well unfortunately, the problems are widespread and very dangerous. Nerves are particularly sensitive to high temperatures, and heatstroke can result in extensive brain damage. The body also undergoes an inflammatory response, which damages cells further. In extreme situations, multiple organs will stop working and the animal can die.


Again, this all might sound horrifying, but here is the important information relevant to you at home: how to spot the signs of heatstroke. A heatstruck dog or cat will often start panting heavily, show weakness, signs of agitation, excessive thirst and drooling. This can progress to collapse, with gums darker than normal, vomiting and diarrhoea, increased heart rate, and glassy eyes. Untreated, a heatstruck animal can go into a coma, have seizures, or even die.


Prevention of Heatstroke

Now that you know what heatstroke is, you can follow our tips to help prevent it. Keeping cool in summer is crucial, so ensure your pets have plenty of fresh water to stay cool and hydrated. Make sure they have access to shade, or provide some - direct sunlight is the hottest, so keep them away from it. Some long-haired breeds may also appreciate a little haircut, to help them stay cooler outside.


When out and about, never leave your pets in a hot car alone - cars act like greenhouses in summer, and a dog or cat trapped inside with no way to cool off can quickly get heatstroke and die. Never take this risk. It is important to maintain exercise during summer, but consider walking your dog during the cooler hours of the day, morning and evening, and restrict their exercise to prevent overheating. You should also be wary of hot pavements, which might not cause heatstroke, but can burn a pup’s sensitive paws.


If you’re looking for some more outlandish, but definitely effective methods of staying cool, why not fill a paddling pool with some cold water for your pooch to lounge about in? They may also appreciate cold towels from the fridge if this isn’t quite enough. Finally, both dogs and cats will love having their own pet popsicles - simply freeze a few kibbles in some water for a tasty cooling treat after a hot day.


Treating Heatstroke

With all the best attention in the world, sometimes pets can become heatstruck regardless. If you spot any combination of the signs listed above, and suspect heatstroke, you should take action immediately. Bring your animal indoors or into shade. Provide room temperature water to sip, and gently cool their body down with water and fans. At this point, you must contact us so we can advise you on what to do next.


You may be wondering what sort of treatment your pet would receive if we feel it is best to bring them in to us. Normal treatment for heatstroke at a vets involves all the methods listed above, as well providing internal cooling via intravenous fluids or an enema. We can also better monitor their temperature, to ensure it is coming down, and prevent the possibility of it swinging too far the other way, towards hypothermia! We will be able to treat any other associated problems as well, to reduce the damage and get your pet back on its feet.


As with many diseases, the earlier heatstroke is recognised, the better the outcome. It costs nothing to give us a quick ring and discuss your worries - with heatstroke, it is better to be safe than sorry.


Final Thoughts

Summer should be a wonderful time for you and your pets and, if you follow precautions, it will be. Make sure you know what to look for when temperatures are high, and don’t be afraid to call for assistance. Although we mainly discussed dogs and cats here, the information above applies to all pets (rabbits, for example, are quite vulnerable to heatstroke). Remember our advice so you can be aware of the dangers of heatstroke, and have a great summer together with your pets.

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