How well do our dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, and horses cope in the heat?
As a practising veterinarian in Inverell, New South Wales, I am, sadly, the witness to the effects of higher environmental temperatures on our animals.
Maybe you own a dog or a cat and wonder how they are coping in the heat?
Or you own cattle, sheep or horses and wonder how high a temperature they can survive?
Well, our animals do not cope very well, as you might already have found out.
In recent years, we had one heat record beat the last, with the summer of 2019 /2020 culminating in the terrible bushfires with temperatures where birds literally fell from the sky, like Icarus crossing the Aegean Sea.
So, what happens when a dog for example overheats and why is it deadly?
Let me use my own dog ‘Primrose’ a 6-year-old Whippet, as an example.
Last summer, on a day that was over 40C, I was desperately trying to find her, but she was nowhere to be found. At lunchtime, a terrifying thought came to my mind: what if she was in the car? I ran, and rightly so, I found her, barely alive, in my overheated vehicle. She had, unbeknownst to me, jumped into the car the night before. She had never done this, ever, so it was the last place I thought of.
She was in a coma, lying on the back seat. My vet hospital is only 40 metres from my house, and I ran with her in my arms to the clinic, shouting to my staff to get ready to save her life.
Her body temperature was 42.7 C. As we know, a fever above 42 C means bad news.
We saved her life by cooling her down with cold enemas, lots of drugs and intravenous fluids, a blood transfusion, insulin and sugar infusions, rebalancing her electrolytes, antibiotics against relocating bacteria inducing sepsis and so forth.
Her brain had swollen inducing a coma. Her blood clotting factors did not work anymore and she was bleeding all through her body; in her gums and tongue, her eyes and under her skin. Her urine was brown from her muscle tissue dissolving as if she had got bitten by a Tiger snake. Her kidney values were off the scale. She bled from her bowels, literally pushing out the lining of her gut with bloody and foul-smelling stringy violent diarrhoea. I kept her under strong morphine and anaesthetic medication until she was better.
Miraculously, ‘Primrose’ survived and is still happy and fit today. But it was close! I felt enormously guilty and was in tears, grateful though that I had the skills and medication to save her life.
Sadly, I see a lot of overheated dogs in summer, and often the outcome is terribly sad. Primrose was lucky.
What actually happens when body temperature goes above the maximum fever temperature?
Above 42 C, proteins start to become denatured, or ‘cooked’. One can resemble this to boiling an egg. An egg contains much protein, and when heated, the proteins are ‘cooked and crumbled’, for good. Once an egg is boiled, you can never ‘un-cook ‘it. This happens to proteins in the body also. Proteins in muscles, cell membranes, hormones, blood clotting factors or gut lining get destroyed (cooked) and therefore lose their function and the body loses its integrity. Death follows. The frantic efforts that we witness in ‘olden-day’ movies where a mother or father is frantically trying to cool the feverish child, reminds us of what life without medical advancements meant and how dangerous a high fever is.
In parts of the world, the outside temperatures reach 50 C nowadays (the hottest ever recorded was 56.7C). Luckily, we humans and horses have sweat glands, and as humans, we can have the air conditioner on, and have a shower or a cold beer to cool us down.
In the 2018/19/20 drought, we measured local soil temperatures of 65 C in Inverell. My daughter was on a cotton farm west of here this summer (which was a relatively mild and wet one) and had burnt soles on her feet, having to pull hot irrigation pipes over the hot ground. The heat coming from the bare earth between the cotton plants was relentless, she reported.
Sadly, dogs and cats can’t sweat and are often unable to choose their environment
Cattle without shade in bare paddocks or in feedlots are often relentlessly exposed to the sun and the heat. Bare earth may be radiating heat from below at a temperature of over 60 C. They are in real danger of overheating and suffering heat stress. In extreme temperatures, cows will abort. Bull’s testicles will not be able to cool down sufficiently to produce viable sperm. Animals may die.
The latest scientific evidence tells us that climate change is undeniable, a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the earth. Any further delay in global concerted action will miss a narrow window to obtain a sustainable future for the people of this planet and the animals we need and love.
On a practical level for you as a pet or livestock owner, please offer shade, wind or water for the animals to cool down. And in the case of dogs, who can’t sweat and therefore do not disperse their body heat easily, don’t work them on hot days. Let them sleep under a shady tree and cool them down with water if need be.
Dr Gundi Rhoades was born in Germany and studied veterinary medicine in Hannover.
After qualifying as a veterinary surgeon, she moved to England where she worked in small animal and mixed practices for 7 years. She moved to Australia in 1998, married a beef cattle farmer, passed her Australian Veterinary Examination and had three children. During the last 20 years in Australia, she ran the farm first with and then without her husband breeding Angus bulls, and then converting the property to organic. She started her own mixed animal practice in 2002 and has grown this to a 3.5 vet successful clinic in Inverell, NSW. She has always worked full-time as a veterinarian, treating pets as well as horses, cattle, sheep and goats. She is as much comfortable in the operating theatre as in the cattle yards pregnancy testing cows all day long. While doing all of what ‘normal vets’ do, her special focus is on nutritional medicine.
During her years as a veterinarian and farmer, she has developed a keen interest in the soil, the health of animals and people, and has ‘connected the dots’ between disease and chemical farming.
Her extensive medical knowledge is combined with her deep understanding of regenerative farming and soil health. She discovered that chemical farming destroys the soil which synthesizes our ‘building blocks for life’, what chemicals like Roundup or 2,4 D do to the environment and our bodies, and how this is translated into a ‘tsunami of modern diseases’.
Diseases like asthma, autism, depression, cancer, autoimmune disease, thyroid problems, endometriosis, polycystic ovary problems, diabetes and so forth.
She wrote a book ‘The Food Solution ‘in which she describes concepts of nutritional deficiencies, chemical poisoning, gut health, gluten intolerance, the vegan myth and how cattle can destroy or save the planet. This book is accompanied by a Podcast with the same name (by Gundi Rhoades) and a podcast which is called Body and Soil by Gundi Rhoades.
She is available for entertaining and inspiring public speaking engagements on the East Coast of Australia.
ABOUT VETERINARIANS FOR CLIMATE ACTION
VfCA is a national, not-for-profit, registered charity with over 1,400 members, mostly from the veterinary and broader animal care community. We help tackle climate change by:
- reducing emissions within the veterinary and animal care sectors,
- encouraging members to advocate for strong climate policies and
- inspiring the public to take and advocate for climate action.
Our Patron is Professor Peter Doherty, veterinary surgeon, Nobel Laureate and Australian of the Year in 1997. Thirty former Chief Veterinary Officers from all States and Territories work alongside us. We are evidence-based and informed by published scientific findings.