How easily can a cat go into heat stroke? More easily than you might think even if they stay indoors and windows are open with fans on during a heat wave. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, the situation can get out of control with a series of circumstances so with all pets, and especially those who might be on the edge with health, it’s best not to presume everything is okay and know the symptoms.
Cats and heat stroke
Cats don’t suffer from heat stroke as easily as dogs because they just aren’t as active in hot weather, going out for walks and play, exerting themselves in the heat. But even if a cat never goes outdoors, the indoors can still get pretty darned hot. Not everyone has air conditioning—I’m one of those—and even with it many people turn the thermostat up during the day when they are away to conserve energy but leave the windows shut, and the temperature can easily hit 90 indoors on a hot sunny day. They need to be able to get to a cooler place, even a tile or hardwood floor or a basement.
All animals enjoy lolling in a sun puddle, especially cats, and on a hot day can actually put themselves in danger simply by sleeping on a sunny windowsill.
And a smaller room can get very hot very fast with the door closed, even with air conditioning.
Symptoms of heat stroke in pets
Just like humans, at greatest risk are the ill, the very young and very old, and obese animals and breeds with short noses.
The most easily-observable symptoms of heat stroke begin with restlessness and excessive, continued panting, which may be hard to tell in dogs but it is extremely un-catlike, so this should tip off a cat owner right away. Other symptoms you can easily observe are:
- vomiting and diarrhea
- bright red or purple lips and gums
- possible seizures
- small hemorrhages that look like bruises on the skin
Body temperature for cats is typically between 101 and 102 degrees, but when the body overheats it can quickly hit 104 degrees. In the meantime the animal is going from restless to lethargic to possibly comatose. Even at the very beginning of the symptoms, the condition is life-threatening and needs treatment immediately.
Treating heat stroke
The cat’s body is in a delicate state with heat stroke and cooling her down the wrong way can be lethal. NEVER use cold water in any way, NEVER put ice or frozen items against their skin. First, take the cat’s temperature if you can to see how far along they are. If it’s above 104, just take them to a vet. If not, here are a few safe methods to try, but if any methods stress them, stop:
- massage rubbing alcohol on their paw pads
- press cold water or an ice pack on the paws and legs
- wrap or drape cold, damp, not wet, towels around their body
- wrap a bag of frozen vegetables or ice in a towel as a compress on their neck and/or torso
- rinse them with room temperature water
Having seen the beginnings of heat stroke twice with my cats it can seem completely unexpected, even when you feel prepared. I am certified in Pet First Aid and remembered the symptoms of heat stroke both times and it helped me to work with both cats to keep it from growing worse. You’ll see some similarities in the following two accounts that may help to provide clues and guidance: an unexpected stretch of hot weather, a small room, and conditions in the cats.
Kelly and heat stroke
Bear in mind, I’ve lived in this house, with cats, for 22 years, and we have had some extreme temperatures in those two decades. I don’t have air conditioning, but can keep my house fairly comfortable with fans and open windows and blinds to block the sun and a series of very large trees, and that serves to keep the house interior no warmer than 85 degrees, even when the temperatures begin to rise into the 90s.
Temperatures do rise above 90 degrees here in Western Pennsylvania, but they rarely stay there for a week or more. When the string of days above 90 degrees, even above 95 and approaching 100, and night-time temperatures of 80 or higher, stretches for seven days or more, no trees or fans or curtains will keep the air cool. Everything simply absorbs the heat and has no chance to cool down, and that includes us—and our cats.
While Kelly still looked and seemed quite agile and healthy, she was 19 years old, at an age when I observe a cat’s diet and habits closely every day. Kelly was actually in very good shape for her age, still able to run up and down steps and leap tall dressers in a single bound, but even though she drank from her water bowls every day she didn’t drink enough to keep herself hydrated as she should. I added water to her food and regularly checked her hydration, checking her skin for flexibility and her gums for proper moisture, and always kept an eye on her appetite and litterbox use. If I noticed she seemed a little dehydrated, with the instruction, materials and order from her veterinarian, I kept a bag of sub-cutaneous fluids on hand and gave her a sustaining dose between 50cc and 100cc perhaps three times per month.
Normally Kelly was the timekeeper for meals and took her place in anticipation, eating everything in her bowl and sometimes nudging into others’. I had noticed she wasn’t quite finishing her meals and took note of it. In the heat she was, like all the younger cats, more lethargic than usual, which also meant she wasn’t visiting the water bowl as often as usual, and perhaps she wasn’t eating as much because of the heat; the younger ones were eating less as well.
I feed my cats twice daily, but when any of my cats has reached their late teens they often need a little extra meal because, like most seniors, they simply eat less at each meal, and they appreciate easier access to a water bowl and litterbox, and a break during the day. I call this the Senior Kitty Lunch Special, and Kelly enjoyed this daily regimen every afternoon for over a year, first with Cookie in the studio, then spending time in the bathroom on her favorite windowsill after her lunch.
On a day that was to reach 96, I had decided she should have a dose of fluids that day. I hesitate to let Kelly in the basement after the day I found her tucked quietly in the base of my chest freezer, not answering my calls, so she couldn’t take refuge in the basement with its cool concrete floor. I could tell her hydration was only starting to decline, but with the heat forecast to continue and increase I thought I’d head off a bad situation for Kelly and give her a dose of fluids that morning, especially when she didn’t eat her breakfast.
But I discovered I didn’t have an extra bag of fluids on hand as I thought I did, and her regular vet was out of town so it would take me some time to get another. I took her and her breakfast and some ice cubes for her water and a fan to the bathroom, which is unfortunately warmer in the morning, darkened the window and saw her drink from her bowl on the windowsill and start eating. About 20 minutes later I checked on her and she’d used the litter box for both movements and eaten her breakfast so I let her out, but when she ran into my studio she was panting, really panting. She left there and went into my bedroom, still panting off and on.
Cats don’t pant unless they are in distress, and Kelly was clearly in distress. I had watched long enough to see that it wasn’t a temporary problem just from exertion as the panting abated a bit but not completely. I remembered from my Pet First Aid training the symptoms of heat stroke—mainly restlessness and panting—tried unsuccessfully to take her temperature and just start to cool her down rather than stress her out even more.
Between the internet and finally finding my Pet First Aid handbook (NOTE: keep it handy!) I read about where in the process she would be and what to do and decided that trying to cool Kelly down a bit before tossing her in a hot car would be the best next move. Cold water on the paws, cold towels around their body, a bag of frozen vegetables or ice wrapped in a towel as a compress on their neck or torso was described. I didn’t have anything that would suffice as a cold compress except for ice, my tap water wasn’t terribly cold, and I thought that with what I had on hand knew Kelly needed more than a little bit here and there, she needed total cooling, right now.
I brought one of my big enamel bowls from the basement and filled it with water that just felt cool to my hand—note that it’s “cool” and never “cold”—got a bigger fan and Kelly and settled her into the water with the fan blowing on her and me. No, cats don’t like water and Kelly is easily frightened and put up a fuss. The last thing I wanted to do was distress her even more, but even though she struggled the water was only halfway up her torso when sitting and I could tell after her initial fear in just a few seconds it felt soothing. She stopped panting in less than a minute and let me dipper water over all of her that was above the level except for her head. I kept her in there for about 10 minutes just petting her, then let her out into the tub with the fan directed on her so she could get herself together and eventually start to dry herself.
I had contacted another veterinarian about getting a bag of fluids and also described Kelly’s symptoms, not certain if she still needed to be seen after her incident. Her temperature after her immersion was 102.3. A cat’s normal temperature averages right around 101, but can be up to 102.5 normally. I know Kelly’s is normally near 102, so that was elevated for her but not at a dangerous level; any elevated temperature should be carefully monitored, and while 103 is the beginning of the danger zone a temperature of 105 or 106 can be lethal, so even tenths of a degree count. While I made arrangements for her fluids I asked if she needed to see the vet—the risk of taking her out on such a hot day was great on its own. She was not panting and her temperature was near normal so we decided just to observe her, use compresses or another cool dip to help bring down her temperature and give her the fluids. After that and a little relaxing drying session, she was back down to 101.8 and seemed to feel much better.
I ran out to get the fluids and gave her a 100cc dose that day. But as the heat continued I knew she wasn’t drinking enough so I gave her 100cc fluids daily for four days in a row and then a few other doses in days after that as the extreme heat lasted a total of ten days. The temperatures cooled for about a week then grew hot again and this time I made certain I had enough fluids on hand, gave her a dose at the beginning of the high temperatures and again at the end, and she had no more need for dunkings but I did closely watch her and she had to suffer the indignity of a temperature check on hot days when she seemed particularly lethargic. I had also decided it was time to purchase a fountain for them all and got the fountain you see in many photos.
Charm and heat stroke
Charm spent all of May locked in my bathroom with her kittens. In the middle of the month, when the kittens were about six weeks old, we had several days of temperatures in the upper 80s to mid 90s with high humidity. I don’t have air conditioning, but I do have windows and fans and carefully planted trees that provide shade, but continued heat tends to build up in a small room.
Charm had famously let herself out of the bathroom twice through the expanding screen, apparently climbing down from the deck roof to sit in the shade under or on the deck. In the few days until someone donated the baby gate that fits that window, I had to keep the window closed far enough to keep Charm from getting out, and kept fans running at the window, pulling air in and out. She may have been fine on her own for that time, but she was nursing five growing kittens and was a little underweight herself to begin with.
One night—and note that it’s night, not even daylight—I’d noticed she was restless, not letting the kittens nurse, and vomited. Charm has had an issue with hairballs, but that wasn’t the reason for her vomiting. I could tell how hot it was already though it was night, and the fans didn’t seem to be doing a thing, noticed her pant a few times and and immediately thought about heat stroke. I took her temperature and it was 103, and with the heat, the kittens on her, being a little underweight and stressed knew I had to head this off or she would need to go to the emergency hospital. I got another fan and opened the window, determining to stay in the room with her so she wouldn’t escape, and then also opened the bathroom door to let air exchange—even with the open window and the fans it was noticeably hotter in there than it was even on the landing outside the door.
Her temperature was 104 but because she was responding to all I was doing I decided to spend a little time to try to cool her down in place rather than stress her with a ride, ready to go if she didn’t respond or her temperature continued to rise. I turned two of the fans on her, put together some small bags of ice wrapped in washcloths and filled the hot water bottle with cool water, put one bag of ice under her neck and the water bottle at her belly, using the other bag of ice to press against her paws and legs (rubbing alcohol on the paws helps reduce fever too, but I only had rubbing alcohol with menthol for my own foot baths and wasn’t sure if the amount of menthol in it could be toxic). She hugged the bottle and began to breathe more easily, and I gave her a dose of about 50cc fluids just to start with. She started to get herself together, got into a comfortable position, and an hour later she was walking around and nibbling and nursing the kittens.
Wrapping it up
When something like this happens I am always concerned it will happen again, especially since Kelly’s hydration was an ongoing problem, Charm was still nursing kittens for a while and summer wasn’t going away.
I talked with Kelly’s veterinarian about this and she gave me even more tips about how to easily cool an animal down when it gets over heated, such as filling a plastic bottle—or the hot water bottle—with cool water and laying it between their legs against the belly, since the inner torso is the hottest area. She also mentioned using rubbing alcohol on the paws because it will help them cool as it evaporates; in dire circumstances you can use it on their torso as well, though it has to be rinsed off. Kelly’s condition seemed to be brought about by the hot bathroom as she warned that bathrooms can get hot really fast when the door is closed, something I remembered with Charm’s condition. Because I had been observing Kelly’s health under my vet’s instruction for several months I was familiar with Kelly’s heart function, confident it was normal enough to withstand this treatment. And most important, Kelly knows and trusts me and even with her fear of the water and confusion in her condition, we have a bond that helped her to trust that I was doing the right thing.
For Charm, I had the fluids on hand to give supplement her hydration while nursing under the advice of my vet and knew that she could tolerate small doses so I felt safe to give them without calling my vet.
Be observant and proactive
So even with careful observation, a combination of mild dehydration in the heat, topped off with excessive heat in the bathroom for that brief time, led to mild heat stroke in geriatric Kelly and a little more serious with nursing mom Charm. I’m just glad I noticed immediately and could act quickly, and having achieved certification in Pet First Aid, I had a background of information and instructions to reference as the situation developed and veterinarians to call for guidance.
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