With summer approaching, we decided it was a good time to alert our pet owners to the risk of heat stroke. Unlike people, most animals can’t sweat and have to lose excess heat through evaporation by panting. This makes it difficult for them to cool down and puts them at greater risk of heat stress on hot days and when doing strenuous exercise.
Most pet owners are now thankfully aware of the dangers of leaving pets in parked cars. The temperature inside a car, particularly with a panting dog, can rapidly raise to well over 50C! You may not however, be aware of other common ways in which we see pets presented for treatment of heat stroke.
A common mistake is letting your dog carry a newspaper, stick or ball in his mouth whilst out walking. As we said earlier, they rely on panting to cool down, so if their mouths are otherwise occupied this makes cooling off very difficult if not impossible and the result can be tragic!
For those of you with very active dogs, particularly working breeds, be careful not to “over-do-it”. These dogs enthusiasm for running and fetching can override their sense to know when to stop. As the responsible parent, you must monitor that they’re not getting heat stressed.
Particular care should be taken with short nosed dogs (brachycephalic breeds) such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Due to their anatomy and restricted breathing they are at higher risk of heat stress. Try to keep these breeds of dogs in airconditioning if possible on very hot days and do not walk them in the heat of the day.
Our other furry and feathered friends can sadly be overlooked. Rabbits, guinea pigs and birds too can also suffer from the affects of extreme heat. Ensure these pets have a well ventilated and shaded shelter and are not kept in direct sunlight.
What does heat stroke look like?
A pet suffering from heat stress may be panting heavily (note that cats normally don’t pant, and if they are panting they are in immediate danger – contact the vet asap). Their gums may be particularly red and often they will collapse and lay down, too hot to keep moving. In severe cases your pet can lose consciousness and seizure putting them at risk of organ shutdown and even death.
What to do if your pet is suffering from heat stress?
Seek veterinary attention! In mild cases, it is often a case of cooling them down by wetting their coat, particularly extremities such as feet and ears, and placing them in a quiet and cool environment. You may be able to run a fan nearby. More severely affected patients often require an intravenous drip to help cool the body internally and support the kidneys. We may need to monitor their organ function with blood tests, and control any seizures with appropriate medication. Prevention is always better than cure!
We’ve touched on this already, but here’s a list of how best to avoid heat stress:
- Avoid walking or strenuous activity in the heat of the day, in summer it is better to walk early or late when the ambient temperature is cooler;
- Don’t encourage very active dogs to keep playing “ball” when they’re obviously hot and panting;
- Don’t leave pets in cars!
- Don’t leave rabbits, guinea pigs and birds in direct sunlight;
- If possible, keep short-nosed breeds (e.g. Pugs), aged pets and overweight pets inside with air conditioning on hot days;
- Provide cool treats such as frozen stock cubes, plenty of fresh water and maybe even a doggie swimming pool using a child clam shell sandpit!
What are hotspots?
A hotspot is an itchy rash that appears moist and may ooze a clear or infected looking discharge. They have a distinct appearance, and the surrounding hair is often matted and smelly. Hotspots generally occur around the head, neck and rump areas, although they can be found wherever there is a skin irritation. Breeds prone to the development of hotspots include Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds.
They usually begin from your pet scratching at a particular area regularly, for a potentially wide range of reasons. Eventually the area becomes a favourable site for bacterial proliferation. The surrounding skin begins to break down further and the skin becomes extremely itchy and inflamed.
Due to the distinct appearance of a hotspot, your vet will be able to diagnose it straight away. However, identifying the underlying cause, or primary reason for the skin irritation is most important. The underlying cause can vary considerably. Some common causes include fleas and flea allergy dermatitis, an ear infection, other allergies including those to food and airborne pollens, regular swimming or exposure to moisture, and even just warm humid weather. In some cases your vet may take a small sample of the infected skin and examine it under a microscope.
Firstly the fur around the infected skin will need to be clipped off to ensure all of the skin irritation is revealed. Then the area will be cleaned, usually with an antibacterial, antiseptic solution. Once the area is clean and dry a topical anti-inflammatory/antibiotic cream will be applied to reduce any localised irritation. This cream will also be used at home and generally applied twice daily to the affected area. Your pet will be sent home with a course of antibiotics and often a cortisone tablet to reduce any inflammation while treating the infection.
In the case where a hot spot is extremely infected and painful to clip and disinfect, effective topical treatment may not be possible whilst your pet is awake, therefore sedation may be required. By placing them under sedation it will allow us to clean and treat the area without your pet being in any pain or discomfort.
How to prevent hotspots
- If you notice your pet scratching, have a good close look at the area
- See a vet if the skin is reddened, flaky or moist
- Keep your pet’s hair short during the summer months
- Use a flea treatment regularly
- Clip away any matted fur
Should my pet wear sunscreen?
Skin cancer does not only affect humans, dogs and cats are at risk too. So do we need to apply sunscreen to our pets to protect them from the sun?
Well believe it or not the sun can cause serious damage to our four-legged friends. If left out in the searing sun for too long their skin can burn resulting in severe damage.
Benign and malignant skin tumours?
Skin cancers that affect the skin can be either benign or malignant. The most dangerous of skin cancers is the melanoma, mast cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Benign tumours are slow growing and are generally move freely in the subcutaneous tissue when palpated. Malignant tumours spread rapidly and invade surrounding issues, becoming inflamed, red and ulcerated.
Your veterinarian may be able to identify a lump by its appearance, however to make a definite diagnosis a sample of the lump is removed through a very simple procedure known as a fine need aspirate. A thin needle is inserted into the lump and a sample is taken and placed onto a glass slide to view under a microscope.
In some cases where a larger sample is required for testing a biopsy punch may be needed. This procedure is usually performed under sedation or local anaesthetic. These samples are sent to laboratory where a pathologist examines them and reports the results to us usually within a week’s time.
Once your veterinarian has diagnosed the lump they then will be able to plan the most suitable treatment for your pet. The location of the tumour can affect how the lump is treated. Surgically removing benign tumours is not always recommended, however malignant tumours should be removed. These tumours require a large excision to ensure all the cancerous cells are removed. Additional treatment like chemotherapy may be required dependent on the severity of the tumour. Click here for more about chemotherapy.
We highly recommend having any lumps and bumps you find on your pet examined. Malignant lumps can grow dangerously fast and in a matter of weeks can double in size and spread to other parts of the body.
How can I prevent skin cancer?
So the answer to whether you ‘should apply sunscreen to your pets’ is yes. Ensure it is a ‘pet’ sunscreen, there are plenty on the market that would be suitable for your pet. Always make sure there is plenty of shade for your pet so they can avoid the brisk sun if they need to. Pet’s that have white or pale skin will more likely suffer from sunburn.
Remember early detection is very important! Don’t wait to see if the lump grows, have it checked out by your veterinarian.
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