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Ask the Vet: Heatstroke Causes Brain Damage and Multiple Organ Failure

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: My sister, who lives in the South, turns her air conditioning up from 75 to 90 degrees when she leaves for work. She reasons that she's saving money while still cooling her home enough for her 10-year-old pug, Fiona.

Please explain what happens to overheated dogs so I can convince my sister that 90 degrees is too warm for Fiona.

A: Any dog can develop heatstroke, but the risk is particularly high for pugs and other flat-faced breeds, dogs with heavy coats, puppies and seniors, overweight dogs, and those with health problems such as breathing troubles or heart conditions.

While the risk is higher in warm, humid environments or while exercising, many dogs develop heatstroke when left in cars parked in the shade, even with partially open windows and temperatures under 75 degrees.

Heatstroke occurs when the dog's body temperature, normally 100.5 to 102.5 degrees, increases to 105 degrees or more.

Clinical signs may include panting, restlessness, rapid breathing, racing heart, poor coordination, gum color that's not the normal pink, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures or collapse.


Heatstroke damages every organ, including the brain, and every body system, including the pathways that control blood clotting.

The blood and organs are composed of protein. As an example, let's consider albumin, an important protein in the blood and also the goo surrounding an egg yolk. Think about what happens when you heat an egg: The clear, runny albumin turns into a white solid.

Something similar occurs with heatstroke as the dog's body bakes. It's no wonder that half of dogs with heatstroke die.

Advise your sister to ask Fiona's veterinarian about the ideal indoor temperature for her during the summer. Until there's an answer, your sister should keep the air conditioner at her usual 75 degrees.


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