While a lot of owners are aware of heatstroke in dogs, cats are thought to handle the heat better than other animals because of the theory that they have evolved from desert animals. The truth is that cats do not tolerate heat any better. It is easy for cats to overheat in warm weather because, unlike humans, they cannot remove layers of clothing when it gets too hot; and they do not always have the option of moving themselves to cooler places to avoid the sun. Cats are also unable to cool down by sweating in the way humans do, so they are less capable of regulating their body temperature. Cats only sweat through their foot pads, and they also pant to get rid of excess heat.
Heatstroke is a state of hyperthermia (elevated core body temperature above the normal range). It occurs when the internal body temperature increases to a point where it exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat, resulting in serious consequences including organ failure and death. Heatstroke is not caused just because it is hot. Other factors include excessive exercise in warm weather, or being left in a warm, humid, and poorly-ventilated environment without access to shade or drinking water.
While all animals are susceptible to heatstroke, some predisposing factors that make an animal more likely to succumb to the effects include animals that are overweight or obese; brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds such as Persian and Himalayan cats; long-haired breeds with thick coats; old or very young animals; and animals with pre-existing medical conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease.
Signs of heatstroke in cats are similar to those in dogs; however, they may be more subtle. They include: panting (which progressively gets more distressed and noisy as the heatstroke worsens); restlessness and pacing as the cat tries to find shade or water; drooling and salivation; vomiting or diarrhoea; bright red gums or tongue; and increased heart rate. As heatstroke progresses to heat exhaustion, the signs worsen and include: signs of mental confusion; weakness and staggering; lethargy; muscle tremors or seizures; and the cat will eventually collapse into a coma.
Heatstroke can rapidly become a life-threatening emergency and first-aid must be started immediately. Remove the cat from the hot environment and put him somewhere cool and well-ventilated, with a fan. Start to cool the animal down by applying cool water to the fur and skin. A cool, wet towel can also be draped over the animal, but this needs to be changed every few minutes as it will warm up and no longer be effective. Do not use ice-cold water as this can reduce blood flow to the skin, reducing the cat’s ability to cool down or causing him to shiver which will increase heat generation by the body. You can offer water but do not force the cat to drink.
Once first aid has been started, contact your veterinarian who will advise you further. It is important to have your pet checked even if he seems okay, because the more serious signs of heatstroke may not be immediately apparent.
The best cure for heatstroke is prevention. Ensure that your pet always has access to a cool, shaded area and drinking water. Never leave him locked in a car or a hot room. It is advisable to groom your pets regularly, particularly if they have long, thick coats and you live in a hot climate. Finally, remember that hot pavements can burn paws: if it is too hot for you to walk on barefoot, it is also too hot for your pet to walk on.
Copyright © Kristel-Marie Ramnath 2023