While not as common of an occurrence for cats as it might be for dogs, a vet explains why it might happen and what to do right away.

By Tracey L. Kelley
July 01, 2021
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A feline's independent streak might be a lifesaver when summer temps start to rise. While there are a few intrepid adventure cats, most kitties rule over an indoor kingdom and are well-acclimated to a temperature-controlled environment. However, this doesn't mean you shouldn't be concerned about heatstroke in cats, especially if they're prone to exploring both inside and out.

Bonnie Bragdon, DVM, MS, is co-founder and president of the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association. She says generally, cats and heatstroke are reported less often than dogs and thus, not as well studied. Additionally, because kitties tend to hide during stress, owners might not recognize signs of heatstroke in cats until the poor thing requires veterinary attention. So here's what you should know.

Can Cats Get Heatstroke?

Yes, mainly due to being trapped in enclosures. Enemy number one? Bragdon says a clothes dryer. Cats might consider this a safe and cozy refuge, but then they don't have the ability to escape the high temperatures (which makes the dog in that infamous Far Side cartoon quite diabolical!) They might also suffer heatstroke, also referred to as hyperthermia, if left in a car or in a cage during grooming. Although cats sweat, it's not an effective cooling mechanism like it is for humans.

Bragdon says certain breeds of cats get heatstroke sometimes, too. "There are brachycephalic cats which are more susceptible to heat exhaustion," she says. "Like dogs, these cats have shortened snouts, small nostrils, and narrow airways, making it difficult to manage the stress of high temperatures."

VCA Hospitals note that cat breeds such as the Burmese, Himalayan, and Persian might be more at risk for brachycephalic airway syndrome, which could lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

What's the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke? "Heat exhaustion implies the body is showing early signs of stress due to elevated temperatures," Bragdon says. "If ignored, heat exhaustion leads to heatstroke as a cat is no longer able to thermoregulate and core body temperature exceeds 105 degrees F." A cat's average temperature is 100.4–102.5 degrees F.

Along with smushed-faced kitties, Bragdon recommends cats with long coats or physical impairments should be kept inside when it heats up outside. Chonky cats, as cute as they are, might also be at risk because of their obesity.

petting sleepy cat
Credit: karinrin / Adobe Stock

Signs and Symptoms of Heatstroke in Cats

Bragdon says cat heatstroke symptoms might include the following: 

  • Body temperature over 105 degrees F
  • Collapse
  • High heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Diarrhea, drooling, or vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal gum color
  • Abdominal pain

How do you take a cat's temperature? Using a rectal digital thermometer is best, but even a baby thermometer will do, as long as it's not glass.

Bragdon says cats don't commonly pant. "When thermoregulation cannot be achieved by heat loss through respiration, cats will thermoregulate by dispersing water across their coat to increase evaporation through grooming," she says. "Prolonged panting is a sign of extreme stress and should initiate a trip to the emergency room."

Cat Heatstroke First Aid and Treatment

Many kitty parents wonder what to do if a cat has heatstroke, and the unfortunate answer is not much. As Bragdon pointed out, when a cat is unwell, she tends to hide, so you might not notice the symptoms of heatstroke until the situation is critical.

"It's an emergency if your cat is unresponsive or has excessive panting," she says. "In contrast to dogs, if your cat tolerates cool towels, she's likely experiencing extreme duress and needs immediate attention. Body temperature greater than 103 for a prolonged period is cause for concern."

Before you attempt to help your kitty, Bragdon advises extreme caution when handling cats in critical condition. "Cats may not tolerate handling and thus, experience increased stress, which could result in harm to themselves or their caregivers," she says. "A kind and loving cat may not be aware of its actions and bite or scratch its caregiver when critically injured or hurt."

Based on the signs of heatstroke in your cat, here's how to determine if you should perform first aid or seek immediate veterinary care, Bragdon adds. If she's unconscious or non-responsive, or conversely, is struggling violently or has diarrhea or is vomiting, place her in a carrier with a chilled towel, pre-cool your car, and drive to the veterinary clinic right away. 

If your cat appears quiet and subdued with minimal panting but is aware, responsive, and tolerates handling, Bragdon recommends these steps for cat heatstroke first aid as you prepare to take her to your veterinarian:

  • Move her to a shady, cool, secure, and enclosed spot immediately. Be sure you can prevent escape as well as provide cooler temperatures.
  • Attempt to minimize handling while administering care.
  • Place a cool towel under her body, note the time, and begin to take her temperature every minute or so.  
  • Since she's likely dehydrated—and only if she seems responsive to it—encourage her to take a few sips of water flavored with tuna or chicken broth. Not a lot, though, as that might cause additional problems.
  • Stop cooling your cat when her temperature reduces to 103.5 degrees F. Record the time again so you can inform the vet how long before the temperature dropped.
  • Pre-cool your car and alert the vet you're coming in with a cat with heatstroke.

Some cats might tolerate a light water mist during the cooling-off period, especially if they're in front of a fan or air conditioner, while others could be more stressed by that action. Also, don't use ice, ice water, or ice packs for cooling, and don't force your kitty to drink water. Additionally, we all know cat bath time is stressful enough on good days, so don't submerge kitty in water, either. 

Bragdon adds that while your first and immediate action should be to reduce body temperature through cooling, don't try to take her temperature if it requires restraint or seems to increase stress. "Struggling and stress can increase body temperature. If your cat is rapidly deteriorating—struggling, vocalizing, or non-responsive—seek immediate attention at a veterinary clinic."

Once there, the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London states the veterinary team monitors body temperature and does blood work to determine if there's been any organ damage. It will also administer fluids and additional cooling methods. Cat heatstroke recovery depends on their age (senior cats and kittens are most at risk), how high their temperature was and the elevated length of time, and your cat's overall health prior to this incident. Most healthy pets recover quickly if treated immediately.

Preventing Heatstroke in Cats

Knowing how to keep cats cool during a heat wave is important, especially if you have an indoor-outdoor roamer.

"Indoor cats aren't conditioned to manage extreme temperatures," Bragdon says. "It's best to keep them safe inside and delay stressful trips for routine care by the groomer or veterinarian until cooler temperatures." If your cat is primarily outdoors, Bragdon says, they've often gradually accumulated to temperature fluctuations, and do fine in hotter weather with access to shade and water without much need for human intervention.

Preventing heatstroke in cats who prefer to explore beyond the catio requires just a little more forethought. "Simply switching indoor-outdoor cats to days inside and nights outside is likely to keep them safe from overheating," Bragdon says. "If your long-haired cat insists on trips outside, consider clipping to avoid matting and reduce the likelihood of overheating.  Never shave your cat completely unless for medical reasons. Cats can get sunburned and otherwise injure their skin with close shaving of fur."

And we're not joking about the clothes dryer. Bragdon encourages all kitty parents to always check dryers before starting them, and be sure your sweet fuzzballs can't be trapped in cars, crates, carriers, or other non-ventilated areas where they can't escape direct sun and concentrated heat.