Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Feline Hyperthermia: Is summer too hot to handle?

White cat in front of fan

The weather this spring and summer has been extremely hot and humid this year, while little rain has fallen. During these “dog days”, pets are at high risk for hyperthermia and dehydration. Humans have the ability to sweat and the knowledge that it’s time for a nice glass of Gatorade to replace body salts lost through sweat. While cats do sweat through their feet, the surface of the paw pads do not provide enough cooling to lower the internal temperature. Cats DO pant, but only once the temperature reaches about 90 degrees, and it is not as efficient as it is in dogs. Cats will also groom more in hot weather, moistening their coats in an attempt to cool down, but again, that thick coat of fur is doing no favors. Cats that roam outdoors may not have easy access to water.
Black and white cat panting
A cat’s normal body temperature is 99.5 to 102.5 degrees at the core and can be slightly higher or lower at the extremities (ears, tail and legs). Heatstroke is an illness that develops when the cat’s body temperature reaches 104 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit due to environmental heat (this is different than a fever which is a result of changes within the body). If the cat’s body temperature rises above 106 degrees, the heat stroke is considered severe and requires immediate veterinary care. If your cat is suffering from heat stroke, it is important to lower its body temperature or death can occur.
How will you know if your cat is experiencing heat stroke?

Signs of Feline Hyperthermia (Heatstroke)
  • Panting
  • Lethargy (sleepiness or unwillingness to move)
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dark, red colored gums
  • Thick, sticky saliva
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Shock
  • Nose bleed
  • Muscle tremors
  • Coma

In addition to watching for symptoms, you may wish to check your cat’s body temperature with a rectal thermometer. A temperature above 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit requires immediate attention.

How to Treat Heatstroke in Cats

If you think that your cat may be suffering from heat stroke, please contact your veterinarian, immediately! Hyperthermia can quickly become a life or death situation, so a qualified doctor should be involved.

Orange cat getting bathedIf you think your cat may be suffering from hyperthermia, remove it from the heat immediately. Pour lukewarm water over the cat, making sure the undercoat becomes wet, not just the surface of the hair. Once the hair is thoroughly wet, place the cat near a fan to increase air circulation. An automobile air conditioner can cool the cat too quickly,  so be cautious on the way to the veterinary office. If the body cools too quickly, the cat can easily become hypothermic (too cold) and other medical issues can arise.
The rectal temperature should be checked every 5 minutes to ensure that the temperature is not dropping too quickly or too low. As soon as the body temperature reaches 103ºF, the cooling measures should be stopped and the cat should be thoroughly dried and covered so he does not continue to cool. Even if the cat appears to be recovering, he may still be dehydrated or have other internal complications, so take him to your veterinarian as soon as possible. 

At the veterinary hospital, your cat will be monitored for complications of heat stroke such as respiratory distress, heart abnormalities, organ failure, shock and other complications, and treated accordingly. If his temperature has not yet become normal, your veterinarian will take steps to return the temperature to normal. Depending on your veterinarian’s assessment, your cat may receive IV fluid therapy, oxygen therapy, or other treatments to address the complications of this illness, such as clotting disorders.

Cats who have suffered from mild hyperthermia may return to normal health within a few hours. Severe cases of hyperthermia may result in long-term health issues, such as kidney disease, and may require lifelong treatment. A cat that has suffered heat stroke once in their lives may be at higher risk for repeat episodes in the future.

Prevention of Hyperthermia in Cats

Tabby cat in front of fanFortunately, heat stroke is fairly easy to prevent. While we often see warnings about leaving dogs in parked cars in the summer, we rarely see similar warnings about cats – mostly because cats don’t tend to travel with their families as frequently as dogs do. However, cats are just as at-risk for hyperthermia when left alone in a vehicle as dogs, since cars can quickly become ovens (up to 140 degrees!) even on a “quick trip” to the store.

If your cat is regularly allowed outdoors, even if he comes inside at night, please make sure that you provide a shady shelter from the sun, such as a cat house. Your cat may not appreciate it, but you should limit outdoor time on the hottest days, and keep your cat inside during 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is when the sun is at its highest peak and temperatures tend to be warmer. Fresh water should also be provided on a daily, if not twice daily, basis. Even if your cat is an indoor cat, be sure to leave him plenty of fresh water daily. Placing a few ice cubes in the water will help keep it refreshing.
There is no set temperature that is “too hot” for your cat, but be aware that older cats with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity, asthma or other respiratory conditions place them at higher risk for heat stroke will  have a lower tolerance for heat than young, healthy cats.
If you do not have air conditioning in your house, be sure that your cats have access to cooler areas in your home such as your basement, or rooms with ceiling or other fans.
Tabby cat on shady deck

Read about more ways to keep your cats cool!

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