Just like humans and dogs, cats can be affected by high temperatures. Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are serious conditions that can occur in any animal. We tend to hear more about Heatstroke in dogs, especially those left in hot cars or taken outside as temperatures increase. Cats are not commonly affected by Heatstroke because they are less likely to be trapped in hot areas, but this doesn't mean they are not at risk. You can protect your cat by understanding the signs of heatstroke and learning what actions to take.
What Is Heatstroke?
Heatstroke is a condition that occurs when the body temperature has become dangerously high. A cat's normal body temperature range is between 99.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. An internal body temperature over 102.5 is considered abnormal. If the elevation in body temperature is caused by a hot environment, heat exhaustion may develop and heatstroke is likely to follow.
Heat exhaustion is a precursor to heatstroke. The cat's body temperature becomes too high for the body to cool itself, and heatstroke will soon develop if the cat is not removed from the hot area. Heatstroke can begin when a cat's internal body temperature goes over about 104 degrees. This causes damage to the organs and cells in the body that may quickly result in death.
Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Contact a veterinarian immediately if you suspect your cat is overheated.
Signs of Heatstroke in Cats
Cats are experts at hiding signs of illness, so you may not notice your cat is overheated until things have become serious. The following signs indicate your cat is overheated and possibly has heat exhaustion or heatstroke:
- Body temperature of 104 degrees or more
- Rapid breathing, panting, or respiratory distress
- Anxiety or restlessness
- Dizziness and/or disorientation
- Dark red gums and tongue
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sweaty paws
- Drooling with thick saliva due to dehydration
- Tremors or seizures
Causes of Heatstroke
Cats are unable to regulate their body temperature as well as people can. The human body is able to sweat and cool down in response to hot environments. Dogs can pant to cool down up to a point, though this process is not as effective at cooling them down in the heat. Cats do not sweat to cool down and they don’t normally pant until they are already in distress. To stay cool, cats tend to move to cooler areas like tile floors, sinks, or tubs. Self-grooming can imitate sweating and provide some cooling. A cat’s coat provides some protection against the heat, but this only works to some extent. If a cat ends up in a dangerously hot situation, the body cannot cool down fast enough to prevent overheating.
Most cats instinctively move to cooler locations as soon as they feel too warm. Most are able to cool themselves before they approach heat exhaustion. However, a cat may become trapped in a hot area like a greenhouse, garage, shed, car, outdoors or even a clothes dryer. These are unfortunately some of the more common causes of heatstroke in cats.
Kittens, seniors, and sick cats are more susceptible to heatstroke because they are even less capable of regulating their temperatures than healthy adult cats. In addition, short-nosed cats like Persians often have compromised airways and are more sensitive to heat. Overweight and obese cats are also more prone to overheating. It’s important that high-risk cats remain in temperature-regulated indoor areas.
The best thing to do if you suspect heatstroke is to get your cat to the nearest open veterinary facility right away. Call the hospital or clinic when you are on the way to get advice about safe cooling methods.
You may be able to check your cat’s body temperature to assess the severity of the situation. If their body temperature is over 104 degrees, you may be able to administer cooling methods at home. Keep in mind that your cat will still need to see a veterinarian.
Cooling down an overheated cat must be done with care. It may seem natural to use ice or very cold water, but these may constrict the blood vessels and actually prevent cooling. Ice and cold water may also over-cool the cat and lead to hypothermia, another dangerous condition.
Take the following steps to cool down your cat:
- Move them to a cool, well-ventilated area.
- If the cat is alert, offer cool water to drink but do not force it. Many cats resist drinking water when they are overheated.
- Use cool/tepid water to soak a towel and place your cat onto it. Do not wrap your cat in the towel as this may trap heat. Change the towel out when it becomes warm from your cat's body heat.
- Gently apply cool/tepid water on your cat's coat.
- Turn on a fan if possible.
- Continue to check your cat's temperature. Stop cooling methods once the body temperature has reached 103.5 degrees. Further cooling at this stage increases the risk of hyperthermia.
Bring your cat to the vet as soon as possible for an examination, even if your cat seems to be back to normal. Your vet may need to run lab tests to check for damage to the internal organs and cells in the body. Additional treatment may be needed to rehydrate your cat, regulate body temperature, and attempt to reverse internal damage. Sadly, not all cats will recover from heatstroke.
How to Prevent Heatstroke
Be sure not to accidentally trap your cat in an area that gets hot. Never leave your cat in a hot car or other hot, enclosed area. The heat inside can rise far higher than the outside temperature.
Do not shave your cat's fur to keep them cool. A cat's coat has the ability to keep them both warm and cool. Additionally, shaving the coat increases the risk of sunburn.
If you have a cat that goes outdoors, provide access to cool indoor areas and fresh water at all times. Make sure you see the cat at least twice a day. If you have not seen your cat in a while, check to make sure they are not trapped somewhere.
Indoor cats should also have access to fresh water and cool areas. Make sure to leave the air conditioner or fan on when you are not home. Before running the dryer, always check to make sure your cat has not snuck inside. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.