Small pets at risk of heatstroke as temperatures rise, study finds

Dogs are not the only pets vulnerable to heatstroke, and experts are saying that people should be aware of the risk to smaller animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits, especially as global temperatures rise.

A study suggests that as well as man’s best friend, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits and ferrets are also being taken to vets with the condition.

The researchers say their findings highlight the need for better public awareness of heatstroke and the risk to all animals, and that cases will continue to rise with warmer weather because of the climate emergency.

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The most common symptoms in all animals studied included abnormal breathing, lethargy, collapsing, and stomach issues such as diarrhoea.

Cats seek out warm areas to sleep and can become trapped in greenhouses and sheds, the researchers say, while caged pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets are at risk of heatstroke because of confinement if their housing provides limited access to shade.

Dr Anne Carter, a researcher at Nottingham Trent University, said: “There is a misconception that heatstroke in pets only relates to dogs in hot cars and we need to do more to raise awareness of risk factors not only for dogs but in the wider pet population.

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“Owners of small animals such as rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs may need to review their pet’s housing and take steps to keep their pets cool in the warmer months to reduce the risk of heatstroke.”

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A team at Nottingham Trent analysed data relating to small animals seen by a group of UK vets between 2013 and 2018, as well as the triggers and risks. They found that dogs were worst affected, with 146 cases of heatstroke.

Three-quarters of these cases were attributed to the dogs being exercised, and 7% were because of them being trapped in a hot car. Flat-faced dogs, such as bulldogs, were particularly at risk, making up a fifth of cases, the study found.

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Sixteen cats were seen by vets for heatstroke, with older cats – those aged over 15 – accounting for the highest number of cases, the researchers found.

Hot weather was responsible for eight guinea pigs, three rabbits and a pet ferret being treated for heatstroke. The researchers found that all of the rabbits also belonged to flat-faced breeds.

Unsurprisingly, the highest number of vet visits for heatstroke occurred during the summer months, with cases in dogs spanning between April and October.

Emily Hall, a researcher and vet, said: “Heat-related illness can affect all pets and is likely to become more common as global temperatures rise. Our findings highlight the need for better public awareness of heatstroke and the risk to all animals.

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“The fact that brachycephalic [flat-faced] dogs and rabbits were overrepresented in our study suggests that owners of these animals should be particularly vigilant during hot weather.”

The data for the study was obtained from veterinary practices that participated in the Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network (Savsnet). As a result, the researchers argue the overall figures for heatstroke are likely to be far greater than reported in the study.

They also argue that many cases may not be seen by veterinary clinics because they go unrecognised by owners due to a lack of awareness of the potential risks and triggers.

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The study, which also involved the University of Liverpool, is published in the Open Veterinary Journal.