Although heat stroke is far more common in dogs than cats, there are still a multitude of ways in which cats can be at risk and they are just as susceptible to the devasting consequences.
What happens in heat stroke?
A cat’s body temperature is normally maintained between 101°F and 102°F (38.3-38.9°C). They are therefore more tolerant of higher temperatures compared to people. However, cats, like dogs, have minimal capacity to sweat to increase evaporative heat loss. Cats therefore rely on other mechanisms of heat loss, for example, grooming and depositing of saliva on their coats to help with thermoregulation.
If your cats body temperature exceeds 104°F (40°C) they will be at risk of heat stroke. The key sign of heat stroke is severe neurological disturbances (eg changes in behaviour and balance) but multiple organ systems are usually affected, including the heart, liver and kidneys. Even immediate cooling may not be enough to reverse the underlying organ dysfunction which can still be fatal.
Why do cats get heat stroke?
Whereas the most common cause of non-exertional heat stroke in dogs is being left in cars, with owners often thinking a short period of time will be safe, cats are more likely to be trapped in out buildings / sheds, where temperatures can still climb to dangerous levels and there is no access to water. However, any location with high ambient temperatures and minimal ventilation will increase the risk of heat stroke.
Cats with short faces and longer coats will also find it more difficult to lose excess heat and are at higher risk of heat stroke.
What are the early signs of heat stroke?
Recognition of the early signs of heat strokes is very important. Initial changes include rapid breathing, unsteadiness, dry gums and a fast heart rate. Panting is a late stage sign in cats compared to dogs. Vomiting and diarrhoea may occur. Unfortunately many cats will be found after a prolonged period of heat stress and it is therefore recommended that veterinary attention is immediately sought.
Can I do anything to help my cat?
Cooling your cat should not delay attending a veterinary clinic but quick measures that can be taken include irrigating the body with room temperature tap water. Do not use ice water as this can constrict the vessels in the skin and stop heat loss. Do not submerge the body in water as if your cat is severely affected it might be at risk of inhaling water. Covering with a towel is also not recommended as this can also reduce heat loss.
How will my vet help my cat?
Your vet will need to admit your cat to the hospital for treatment. In the early stages the most important action is to reduce your cat’s body temperature. This can usually be achieved with wetting the fur and applying fans but further tests and supportive care for any organ damage will also need to be initiated concurrently.
Depending on the severity of the heat stroke and development of secondary organ dysfunction, your cat may need to be hospitalised for many days. Cats are particularly prone to kidney injury and this is likely to require prolonged intravenous fluid therapy.
Will my cat get better?
Heat stroke is a very serious condition. Although fewer cats are presented for veterinary attention of heat stroke and therefore less information on prognosis is available, it is well recognised that heat stroke can still be fatal. However with prompt treatment some cats can still make a full recovery.
Heat stroke is a very frightening condition and can kill a healthy animal in as little as 20 minutes. Prevention is your best protection but if you do suspect heat stroke in your cat then immediate veterinary attention is essential.