Cats have some sweat glands, but their skin is covered in fur, so this minimizes the amount of cooling the sweat can provide. Paw pads have the most sweat glands. You may see damp footprints from your cat walking on a hard surface in the summertime. Panting is the most efficient way cats cool themselves. It works by allowing heat from the hottest part of the body, the inner thorax, to escape through moisture produced by mucous membranes of the tongue, mouth and throat. The cat exhales the moist air and the process of evaporation cools the cat. Although it is the most efficient way of cooling, panting is not an everyday occurrence in cats. Most cats are not outside running and exercising at the same level as dogs. On a warm day a cat will lie down in the shade and nap. Only very heat stressed cats will pant, so if your cat is panting you need to be concerned that she is too hot, unlike the common panting we see in dogs. Help your cat to cool herself by wetting her fur with cold water, providing cool water to drink, and moving her to a cooler area. Cats also lick the fur over their bodies to distribute saliva that will evaporate to cool them, much like sweat would do.
How Does Body Temperature Stay Within the Normal Range?
Body temperature is controlled by the brain. When there are increases in outside temperatures, or a cat is excited, stressed, or has been recently active, the body gets a signal from the brain to lose the extra body heat. The primary way is through panting, but other methods are also important. Dilating blood vessels in the skin allows heat to escape as the warm blood is brought closer to the surface. Sweating, stretching out the body, or getting wet are other ways cats stay cool. If these processes cannot be performed, or the body is overwhelmed and cannot cool itself enough, heat stroke and death may occur.
Fever or Just Hot?
A temperature consistently over 102.8 degrees Fahrenheit is cause for concern in cats. Signs of fever include reluctance to move, increased frequency of breathing, depression, anorexia, and lethargy or listlessness.
Hyperthermia is simply an increase in body temperature. This may be due to outside temperatures, excitement, exercise or other causes and is not a true fever.
If you are unsure whether your cat actually has a fever, rest her for 20 minutes, then check the rectal temperature again. If your cat is acting normal other than panting and having an increased temperature, chances are it is hyperthermia and not a true fever.
Why Does My Cat Have an Increased Temperature?
As discussed above, body temperature may be increased due to many things. Fever increases the body’s set temperature (range of temperature in which body systems can function normally) to assist the immune system by activating immune cells to attack the foreign invader, such as a bacterial infection. With increased environmental temperatures and other causes of hyperthermia, the body’s set temperature is not increased.1 The body can cool itself over a short period of time and return to a normal temperature as long as cooling mechanisms are not overwhelmed by too much intense heat.
If your cat seems to be overheated or is not acting normal contact your veterinarian immediately. Continued panting after cooling measures have been performed is not normal. Heat stroke is possible in cats, and can be lethal. Organ failure, brain swelling, blood clotting disorders or death may occur with heat stroke. In a very hot cat, applying cool water to the groin, armpits and front of the neck will cool her. A fan may also be directed toward her to help cool her. Provide water to drink and contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may give IV fluids and hospitalize for additional treatments and monitoring.
Common sense and thinking ahead will allow you to avoid serious complications from overheating in your cat. Remember, if you are hot, your cat is hot. Cats are not people—they have their own unique ways of staying cool.
William R. Fenner, Quick Reference to Veterinary Medicine (Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000), 60.
Michael R. Lappin, DVM, PhD Feline Internal Medicine Secrets (Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, Inc., 2001), 326.