While taking good care of your cat should obviously be a year-round concern, your vigilance is perhaps most necessary in the late spring and summer months, when temperatures rise significantly in most areas of the U.S. During extremely hot and humid weather, cats can be increasingly vulnerable to heat exhaustion and dehydration. They are more susceptible to assault by fleas, ticks and other insidious parasites. They can be dangerously exposed to cancer-causing sun rays.
They are also more likely to come in contact with such noxious substances as lawn chemicals and rotting garbage. And if they are not properly confined within safe homes, they can be at elevated risk for accidents as well as dangerous encounters with other animals.
The danger of heatstroke
According to Michael Stone, DVM, a specialist in small animal medicine at Tufts, heat exhaustion — a debilitating disorder that can lead to a potentially fatal attack of heat stroke — frequently afflicts animals who, during extremely hot weather, have been confined within an overheated area, such as a parked car with tightly closed windows, and those who do not have access to water.
Although he notes that heat exhaustion is “rare in cats, while it is a common problem for dogs,” he nevertheless advises cat owners to be aware of the disorder’s distinctive clinical signs and the emergency measures that should be taken.
The initial signs of feline heat exhaustion include panting, muscle weakness, staggering, rapid heartbeat, and, possibly, vomiting. “The cat will typically breathe with her mouth open and have a distressed expression on her face,” says Dr. Stone. Unless an animal that is manifesting these signs is cooled down immediately, heat stroke is likely to ensue. When that occurs, the animal’s panting will become increasingly labored and rapid. She will be inhaling air, the temperature of which, on an extremely hot day or within a confined space, is likely to be higher than the normal feline body temperature — which is typically between 100.4 and 102.5 degrees.
If the overheating (hyperthermia) is unrelieved and the cat’s body temperature reaches 105 degrees or higher, cell damage will start to occur — which can result in kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal dysfunction, lowered levels of blood oxygen, destruction of skeletal muscle tissue, impaired brain function, heart failure and death. It is important to recognize that the interior temperature of a car parked in the sun can become dangerously high even on relatively mild — warm as opposed to hot — days.
Obese cats and older cats with age-related conditions — such as advanced cardiovascular disease — are at greater risk for heat stroke than are young, healthy animals. Densely coated cats (Himalayans and Persians, for example), whose bodies are less able to dissipate heat, are also at elevated risk. The same is true for brachycephalic breeds — those with flat faces and short noses — who may lack sufficient nasal space to allow for the cooling of inhaled air.
Evidence of possible heat stroke requires immediate emergency care. While making arrangements to transport the cat to a veterinarian as quickly as possible, the owner should try one or a combination of the following techniques: Wipe the cat’s body with a cool, wet rag, but do not immerse her in cold water. Apply ice to her head and inner thighs. Move her to an air-conditioned room or to a room with a fan. Using a rectal thermometer, monitor the cat’s temperature continuously to assess whether efforts to lower her body temperature are succeeding.
When the cat’s temperature appears to be approaching normal, she should be rushed to a veterinary clinic for a thorough examination and any additional professional care that might be needed. This may entail, for example, intravenous fluid therapy to help restore circulation and correct chemical imbalances.
In addition to protecting a cat from heat stroke, owners should also be alert to several other warm weather threats, including:
– Excessive exposure to bright sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet rays greatly increase the risk of squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer that usually manifests itself on an animal’s nose or ear margins and can be lethally destructive. “While the damage to the skin occurs during the summer months,” notes Dr. Stone, “the signs may not become apparent until several months later, in the fall.” White or lightly-pigmented cats are most susceptible.
– Increased exposure to ticks, worms, fleas and other parasites. “Although flea infections are more common in the fall, infection with all of these creatures — especially ticks and intestinal parasites — is certainly more prevalent during the warmer months,” Dr. Stone points out. He advises owners to consult their veterinarians regarding the preventive measures and commercial products that are safest and most effective for reducing the likelihood of infection, noting that: “Perhaps the most common problem for cats in the warmer months is toxicity that results from their being treated with anti-tick and anti-flea products that have been developed for dogs instead of cats. Owners must be careful to never apply a product that isn’t labeled specifically as being safe for cats.”
– Ingestion of pesticides, lawn chemicals and antifreeze. Antifreeze, which commonly leaks out of overheated automobiles during hot weather, is a sweet-smelling liquid that is very attractive to cats and is commonly found during the summer months puddled in parking lots or on garage floors. The ingestion of ethylene glycol — the main ingredient in most automobile antifreeze products — can cause serious damage to a cat’s kidneys and, if untreated, can lead to kidney failure within 24 hours after ingestion.
– Injuries resulting from falls, fights with other animals and motor vehicle accidents. A cat can sustain serious injury or be killed by leaping or accidentally tumbling from an open window or balcony far above ground level. Noting that such injuries are “absolutely more common” during the warmer months, Dr. Stone urges owners to make sure that all upper-story open windows are properly screened and that the screens are securely attached. Regarding hostile encounters with cats and other animals, he says: “Injuries sustained in these fights, usually bites, can penetrate deeply into tissues. Even though there may be only a small hole in the skin, bacteria can enter, rapidly multiply, and create a serious infection. Fatal diseases, such as feline leukemia, may also be passed through bite wounds.”
– Finally, Dr. Stone points out that among all warm weather threats to feline health and well-being, none is more common than being hit by a car.
Considering the various hazards that a cat might encounter while roaming around outdoors during hot weather, Dr. Stone strongly encourages cat owners to avert potential disaster by simply keeping the animal indoors. Of course, the cat should always have access to cool drinking water and live in a home with adequate ventilation and temperature control. — Tom Ewing