Hot weather safety for animals

The hot weather can pose a serious danger to you and your animal companions. Here’s how to keep them cool all summer long.

“If it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for your pet.” It’s something to always keep in mind during the hot, hazy days of mid-summer. As we wander around in as little clothing as the law will allow, stealing the occasional run through a neighbor’s sprinkler, we also need to consider the effects of hot weather on our dogs and cats.

The hazards of heatstroke

Animals aren’t able to release excess heat from their bodies the way we can. Although some heat is released through the skin, the only real ways a dog or cat has of getting rid of body heat is by panting and sweating from glands between the toes. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough when an animal gets over-heated. Heatstroke, a dangerous and potentially fatal condition, can occur very quickly as the body temperature exceeds 105°F.

Puppies and kittens, senior dogs and cats, and those who are overweight, have heart disease or other medical conditions are at a higher risk for heatstroke. In addition, some breeds are more prone than others. Animals with short upper respiratory tracts – such as pugs and Pekinese dogs, and Persian and Himalayan cats – cannot pant as effectively and are especially susceptible to heatstroke.

Left untreated, heatstroke can cause irreversible damage to the brain and other vital organs, resulting in death. Dogs are more susceptible than cats to heatstroke as they aren’t the best moderators of their own body temperature. Dogs are less likely to think “I’m hot and want to find some shade,” so it’s up to us to pay close attention.

What are the symptoms?

Signs of heatstroke include increased panting, and dry, sticky and discolored (bright pink, reddish or purple) gums and tongue. This is considered the first stage, and in most cases, helping your dog cool down is all you need to do. Take him to a shaded or air-conditioned area. If possible, douse him with water. Use cool but not ice cold water; the latter may cause shivering and actually increase his body temperature. Offer small drinks of water but don’t force him to drink. Over-heated dogs sometimes cannot swallow properly. If, in tandem with excessive panting and discolored gums, your dog vomits, displays a lack of coordination, lethargy or even collapses, he is in serious heat-related distress and you must seek immediate veterinary attention.

Cats are typically more adept at keeping cool than dogs, although they are not immune to heatstroke. A cat that is over-exerted or cannot find a cool place is at risk. If she pants and drools, she is over-heated. Apply the same cooling techniques as you would for a dog. A cat that vomits, has a lack of coordination, dilated pupils or mucus membranes that are grayish in color is in serious trouble and requires immediate veterinary attention.

How can I prevent heatstroke?

  • Exercise your dog early in the morning or later in the evening.
  • When temperatures are extreme, forgo the exercise and allow potty breaks instead.
  • If you must walk your dog when the weather is hot, carry a portable water bowl and bottled water. Keep the walk short, stop at regular intervals in shaded areas and offer your dog water.
  • If you allow your cat to roam outdoors, ensure that a bowl of water and shaded areas are available. Install a cat door so she can come indoors when it gets too hot out. Better still, keep her indoors at all times, regardless of the season.
  • Never leave your animal inside a car, even for a minute or two – not even if you park in the shade and leave a window partially open. Each year we hear heart-wrenching news reports of animals who succumbed to the heat because they were locked inside a car. It’s always the same: “But I was only gone a few minutes!” Temperatures inside a car can rise 40ºF in just one hour, and 80% of that increase occurs within the first 30 minutes! This is the case even on cloudy days, or when the car is in the shade. And although we may think we’ll only be gone a few minutes, we too often get sidetracked and those minutes stretch out. When you return, your animal could already be in critical condition, and even the most experienced veterinarian may not be able to save his life. Leave your animal at home while you run errands.

Sun protection is important too

Your dog or cat may be covered in hair, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get sunburned. Noses can easily burn as can the interiors of upright ears. Some medications are also known to increase sun sensitivity, so if your animal is taking anything, ask your veterinarian what effects direct sunlight may have. Apply a bit of sunscreen to sun-exposed areas, using a product that’s made for children, that contains no zinc or PABA, and that has an SPF higher than 15.

Like people, animals can and do get skin cancer from sun exposure. Single-coated dogs will benefit from wearing a light jacket or even a cotton t-shirt. That extra layer will protect his skin from the rays of the sun. And while it may be tempting to cut or shave a long-haired or double-coated dog, it’s not advisable unless recommended by your veterinarian. The long hair actually helps protect your dog’s skin from the sun and the double coat acts as insulation.

Don’t forget his feet. Paw pads are often irritated by hot asphalt and become dry, cracked and sore. Not only that, but it’s just plain uncomfortable for your dog to put his paws on blazing hot concrete! Use a paw protection product. Topical balms and ointments not only protect from the harsh asphalt, but ward off dry, cracked paws. Special boots insulate his feet from the heat and can also provide protection from shards of broken glass.

Our four-legged companions rely on us to keep them happy and healthy and to help them beat the heat. A few simple precautions will keep your best friend safe all summer long.