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Body temperatures in cats range between 100 – 102.5°F (37.7 – 39.1°C). When an infection occurs, the body often increases the internal temperature as a way to fight off and kill the infectious organism, this is known as pyrexia.
How do cats regulate their body temperature?
Thermoregulation refers to the control of the body temperature as a result of external factors such as an increase or decrease in temperature. This occurs by:
- Change in location – Moving to a shady spot if it’s hot, moving to a sheltered spot, or into the sun if it’s cold.
- Vasoconstriction or vasodilation – Narrowing or widening of the blood vessels to restrict or increase blood flow. Blood carries heat, which is then when it reaches the surface of the skin. So on hot days, the blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow to the skin, on cold days they constrict to reduce heat loss.
- Hairs – Hairs stand on end when the temperature falls, this improves the insulating properties of the skin and coat.
- Shivering – When the temperature drops and the above methods are no longer effective, your cat will shiver. This occurs when muscles begin to shiver slightly in order to produce warmth by expending energy. Shivering can also occur in response to fever.
- Sweating – This isn’t as important in cats as it is in humans. Cats do sweat a little through their paws.
There are two causes of a high temperature in cats.
- Fever (pyrogenic)
- Hyperthermia (nonpyrogenic)
Fever (pyrexia): The most common cause of a fever is an infection, other causes include
- Certain medications
- Autoimmune diseases
- Endocrine disorders
- Vascular disorders
Heatstroke (hyperthermia): Hyperthermia occurs when the external temperature is higher than your cat’s body temperature and he is unable to bring the temperature down by thermoregulation. For example, a cat locked in a car on a warm day is at great risk of developing hyperthermia. This is a life-threatening condition and requires urgent veterinary attention.
The most common cause of hypothermia is prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, other causes include anorexia, certain medications, blood infection, diabetic ketoacidosis, kidney disease, liver disease, and poor ability to regulate body temperature in very young or very old cats.
Kittens are unable to regulate their body temperature for the first few weeks of life, therefore, it is important for the pet owner to be aware of this and maintain a steady temperature for them.
To take the temperature with a mercury thermometer you will need:
- Mercury thermometer
- Petroleum jelly
Have your cat on a firm surface such as a dining table and have your helper hold him by the scruff of the neck so that he can’t run away. Shake the thermometer firmly until it drops to 96°F (35.5C). Lubricate the bulb tip with a little petroleum jelly, lift the base of the tail and gently slide it into your cat’s rectum until half of it is inside. Keep it in for three minutes, withdraw and check the reading. You should seek veterinary attention if your cat’s temperature is under 99°F (37.2°C) or over 104°F (40°C).
If your cat only has a moderate temperature and seems otherwise well, you can try to reduce it by using fans to cool him off and provide him with plenty of cool fresh water.
Don’t give your cat a bath, this will make the situation worse by trapping the water in the coat, which acts as insulation and do not administer medications such as ibuprofen, acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) or acetaminophen (paracetamol/tylenol) as these common medications are toxic to cats.
Most fevers in cats will require veterinary treatment, which may include:
- Antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, in some cases antibiotics will be prescribed for cats with viral infections to prevent the development of secondary infection.
- Most viral infections require supportive care while your cat mounts an immune response. This may include fluids and nutritional support.
- Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation or manage autoimmune disease.
- Surgery and/or chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancers.
If you suspect your cat has hyperthermia, seek veterinary attention immediately. Do not attempt to treat at home.