With the warmer months upon us, it is imperative we remember the danger heat poses to our pets. Heat stroke is a serious situation with the potential for life-threatening results. We all know it isn’t safe to leave an animal in a vehicle but it is important to be constantly reminded of the dangers associated with, and other situations causing, heat stress in your dogs and cats.

Cars are manufactured primarily from metal and glass.  These are great conductors of heat and a vehicle’s temperature can rise very quickly even with the windows down. Pets suffer when confined within a vehicle, with glass intensifying the heat just as in a greenhouse, even on a cooler day.


During the cooler month of August 2010, Benji* was brought to Animal Emergency Service with severe heat stroke. It was a relatively cool winter’s day and Benji’s owners spent the morning packing one of their vehicles for a day of sport and adventure. In their haste, they didn’t realise their beloved pet had snuck into the spare vehicle in the hope of an impromptu trip. All packed, the owners left for the day without a clue that their beloved pet was hidden inside a vehicle in the closed garage.

On their return home hours later, Benji’s owners were concerned at his disappearance and commenced a frantic search. Moments later, he was discovered collapsed in the vehicle with a high temperature and panting heavily. Sensing Benji’s heat, the owners commenced cooling him with water. He wasn’t able to walk but lifted his head enough to lap at the water. Benji was then rushed straight to Animal Emergency Service where vets were on standby in anticipation of his arrival.

Severe heat stroke with poor peripheral perfusion was diagnosed by Dr Robert Webster, and a high flow oxygen mask and intravenous fluids were administered. Cooling was also continued with water applied to the paws and abdominal skin. Intensive treatment with hospitalisation was continued for the next week but sadly, Benji did not recover and his owners elected euthanasia.

Besides this scenario, there are other situations when heat stroke is likely. Pets left outside on hot or humid days without available shade or water are likely to suffer heat stroke. Animals exercised heavily in this climate may also fall victim. Some breeds are susceptible to heat stroke, in particular brachycephalic, ie. Short-nosed breeds of dogs (such as Pugs) and cats because their panting is less effective at dissipating heat.


Early symptoms include restlessness and excessive panting. Their respiratory and heart rate will increase and excessive drooling may occur, as well as diarrhoea and vomiting. Other symptoms to watch out for are the pet’s gums turning to a dark red, purple or blue colour, as well as gasping. Pets will become weak and seizures may occur, causing the animal to become comatose.

It is important to remember that if your pet is experiencing elevated temperature, there can be many different causes aside from heat stroke. If you do experience this, you should commence cooling your pet and seek veterinary assistance as soon as possible. The best way to cool your pet is by placing wet towels over the animal. Avoid using ice or very cold water which will cause blood vessel constriction of the skin where most of the blood is, as this will prevent the heat loss required.


Veterinary treatment will vary depending on the severity of the heat stroke. Heat stroke affects all body systems and causes thermal damage to numerous tissues. Intravenous fluid support is usually necessary, with some patients requiring blood transfusions, oxygen therapy, medication if cerebral swelling is detected, or antibiotics if there has been damage to the gastrointestinal tract. However, with such intensive treatments, patient survival, whilst highly successful, isn’t always guaranteed.



Heat stroke is most certainly preventable. Animal Emergency Service provides these recommendations to avoid your pet suffering heat stroke:

  • Do not leave your pet anywhere without adequate shade or water. During our hotter days, it is best to avoid leaving pets outside for prolonged periods of time
  • Do not leave animals in vehicles. Even with the windows down, being left in a vehicle can be dangerous for your pet
  • During summer, pay particular attention to pets that are obese, have respiratory difficulties, are geriatric, or are otherwise unhealthy.
  • Provide adequate water for animals that perform strenuous exercise in warm temperatures. Try to avoid physical activity during the hottest part of the day, and provide adequate water and rest after your pet exercises.

 * Benji’s name was changed to protect his and his family’s identities.

Written by Solange Newton

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