Heat stroke in cats - what signs should you look out for?

Orange cat outside in snow

Many cats like the heat, but just like humans, they can suffer from heat stroke by staying in the sun for too long. Constant access to plentiful fresh water is essential. Cats do not pant like dogs to help them to regulate their body temperature. If the surrounding air temperature is too high their body temperature will rise quickly. Above 42°C, this can lead to death. Here we describe the signs of heat stroke and how to help your cat if it gets heat stroke.

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Signs of heat stroke in cats

Early signs of heat stroke may be subtle and it is important to know what is normal for your cat. In severe cases a cat may go into shock and become unconscious. Signs to look out for include:

  • Panting and a dark red tongue

  • Very pale or dark red gums

  • Sticky or dry gums

  • Lethargic, weak or wobbly

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

  • Difficulty breathing and collapse, which may progress to seizures

  • Loss of consciousness

Causes of heat stroke in cats

A cat’s normal body temperature is 38.2 - 39.2°C. Above this temperature is abnormal and potentially dangerous. Being trapped in a hot and enclosed space is the most common cause of heat stroke. You can prevent heat stroke by never leaving your cat in such places. It can take as little as 15 minutes for a cat to die of heat-related illness. For example, during the summer in the UK the temperature inside a car can reach 56°C (133°F). Cats can also suffer from heat stroke if they are in the sun for too long without shade, or do not have access to sufficient water.

Some cats are more prone to heat stroke than others:

  • Obese cats

  • Short nose (brachycephalic cats)

  • Thick coated or long haired cats

  • Kittens and elderly cats

  • Cats with health conditions such as heart or lung disease.

What can you do to help your cat?

If a cat shows symptoms of heat stroke it is important to act quickly.

  1. Move your cat to a cool, quiet area

  2. Offer fresh water to drink. Alternatively, a small syringe can be used to put drops of water on the cat’s tongue. Do not force the cat to drink a large volume of water, or force a syringe into its mouth, as you risk causing harm

  3. Actively cool the cat using cold water, such as a bowl and sponge, or shower

  4. Do not submerge the cat’s head in water to prevent aspiration pneumonia

  5. Cold wet towels can be placed on the stomach, armpits and pads. Refresh them frequently

  6. Take the cat’s rectal temperature every five minutes, if it is safe to do so, until the temperature is below 39.2°C (102.5°F)

  7. After a mild episode of heat stroke we recommend that you seek advice from a vet to ensure that your cat has no additional complications

  8. Severe cases must be seen immediately at a vet clinic

  9. Important: never give anti-inflammatory medication to a cat with heat stroke as this can cause harm

How to prevent heat stroke in your cat

Many cats naturally look for a cooler place when they get too hot. But for an indoor cat, it can sometimes be difficult to find a cool spot. Here are some tips to help prevent heat stroke:

  • Make sure your cat has access to cool places within the home

  • Keep an eye on your cat if they are in the at risk categories listed above on hot days

  • Provide ample water sources in multiple places and try running water such as water fountains to encourage drinking

  • Never leave the cat alone in a car when it is hot, even if you are only away for a short time

Treatment of heat stroke in cats

Whole body cooling is the focus of heat stroke treatment. Intravenous fluid therapy is often used to treat the symptoms of shock and electrolyte imbalances. Blood tests are used to evaluate internal organ function. Oxygen and anti-seizure medications may also be needed. Cats that have had heat stroke may need to stay in intensive care for several days until they have stabilised and normal organ function has resumed.

When to see your physical vet

  • If you need to visit a vet, continue to cool your cat whilst on the way to the clinic, if possible. For example, with a cooling mat and air conditioning

  • In severe cases of heat stroke, rapid veterinary treatment is required - every minute counts! Call your vet to alert them you’re on the way

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