Summer is finally in full swing! The mosquitos are out, the grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and the hot weather is here. While I love the warm season here in Michigan, it brings about two extra emotions: worry and frustration. I’m going to spend some time today talking about hot weather management strategies for pets, as well as one of the silliest (and potentially harmful) things I see owners doing out in public.
I’ll begin with some starting information about how dogs and cats handle excess body heat. Humans perspire (sweat), which creates evaporation of sweat from the body, which in turn cools the body. Dogs and cats do not sweat all over their bodies. Both do have some sweat glands on the bottom of their feet (watch for wet footprints when a dog is hot). The main way that pets lose heat is through panting, which is primarily an evaporation strategy like it is for people. Moisture on the tongue and in the upper respiratory tract evaporates, which causes cooling to occur.
As you may have guessed, a few factors limit an animal’s ability to cool down in this way. The outside temperature, the amount of physical activity, the level of body hydration, and the humidity all play some part (large or small) in how well an animal can cool itself down.
No matter where you are or where you’re going or where your pet is, and regardless of the species, pets need to be protected from the elements. In the summer, this means they need access to cooler conditions either indoors, or shade, or even a pool or something similar to cool down in. Pets also need unrestricted access to cool, fresh water so that they can stay hydrated and cool themselves down. All of our pets are wearing fur, which makes it far more difficult for them to shed heat to the ambient air around them. While we are enjoying tanktops or bathing suits, our pets are outside wearing the equivalent of a heavy sweatshirt or sweater. If it’s too hot for you to be comfortable without some kind of cooling strategy, you can be certain it’s miserable for your pet, too.
There are two huge danger areas that I see for pets in the summertime. The first is being in cars, and the second is being taken outside to outdoor events (festivals, sporting events, dog parks, etc.). Both of these situations can and will harm or kill pets. Dogs are at much greater risk for this than cats, of course, but since cats come to the hospital during the summer, too, some car travel is necessary for them.
It’s never safe to leave your pet in the car during the summer. It doesn’t matter if the windows are cracked. You shouldn’t rely on the air conditioner if you leave the car running, either. Within ten minutes, the temperature in a car can rise 19 degrees. Think about the difference between 70 degrees and 89 degrees for you when you’re outside. Now put on a fur coat and limit the amount of cooler air you have access to. Things get downright dangerous in a big hurry. Below is a chart that illustrates the rise in temperature inside a car over time, compared to the outside temperature. There’s really just no way around the danger of a parked car for pets in the summer. Cars in motion with the windows down aren’t necessarily as dangerous with regard to temperature, but there are plenty of other dangers about dogs in cars that I’ll rant about in another post. 😉
Every summer, I witness owners either unknowingly, or worse, knowingly, subjecting their pets to extremely uncomfortable weather. We love to travel with our dogs, and dogs generally love to travel with us. The destinations really make a difference for whether you’re endangering your pet’s life or if you have a manageable day outside.
Summer affords a lot of great opportunities to be outside in Michigan. Going places like the lake or the beach can be perfectly OK for dogs if you follow the same rules you follow for yourself — stay hydrated, have shade available, or find ways to cool off in the water. Please remember that even a wet dog will get too hot during strenuous activity! They simply can’t cool down as well as we can, so you have to be extra careful. Provide lots of fresh cool water and don’t overdo the physical activity.
The events that stress me out so much are festivals and fairs. Every summer, I see people with their dogs out and about in the concrete jungle. The dogs’ tongues are hanging so far out of their mouths that they’re nearly tripping on them, and the dogs just look so miserable to me. I don’t see owners offering them cool water, even though these same owners are chugging away their bottled water. It seems like it would be common sense to water your pet more frequently than you do yourself, but I don’t see it happening. These pets are being put in danger of overheating and suffering real damage. Please, dear readers, leave the pups at home if it’s hot outside. Encourage your friends to do the same.
What can go wrong with overheating? I’m glad you asked! This is where things get ugly and gross, so hold tight.
The normal body temperature for dogs and cats is 99.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat damage can start to occur when the body temperature gets to 104 degrees F. From there, serious damage to internal organs, blood, and brain can occur.
Signs of heat stroke include weakness or lethargy, rapid panting, bright red tongue or gums, thick saliva, and vomiting or diarrhea (sometimes with blood). Animals can go into shock or into a coma, or have seizures, too.
Animals with high body temperatures essentially go into shock. Their gums may get very pale, the heart rate may go very high, and they may collapse or be unable to get up and move. The high heat begins to damage proteins in the body, as well. This means that an animal’s ability to clot blood normally can be destroyed. Bleeding into the GI tract, skin, or a body cavity can occur. This is often noted as little pinpoint bruises on the skin or bloody vomit/diarrhea. Seizures can occur as the brain is damaged by the high heat.
What you can do for first aid:
•Bring the animal into a cool area in the shade or indoors.
•Wet the dog down with cool or even lukewarm water. Using icy cold water will cause the blood vessels in the skin to contract, which pushes blood toward the body core. That’s where the temperature is highest. You need those skin blood vessels to bring blood to the surface so it can be cooled down. So cool or lukewarm water is best. We will often simply lay a wet towel on the dog after the fur is thoroughly soaked.
•You can have a fan gently blowing on the pet once the fur is soaked.
•Ice packs can be placed under the armpits and/or in the groin. There are major blood vessels in these areas that can be cooled more aggressively without worry about constricting vessels.
•Apply rubbing alcohol to the bottom of the feet. This allows for faster evaporation and more cooling in a place on the body that is designed to work by evaporative cooling.
•Give cold, fresh water to drink in small amounts.
***Monitor your pet’s temperature with a rectal thermometer. You should stop all cooling strategies when the temperature is 102-103F. The body will always cool down more after that point.***
TAKE YOUR PET TO THE VETERINARIAN TO BE EXAMINED
This is critical so that we can ensure that your pet is not having any other life-threatening consequences from overheating. Don’t wait until the next day. Some pets with heat stroke have to be aggressively managed in the hospital because of complications like kidney damage and the inability to clot blood properly. These complications can be life-threatening, especially if they are allowed to go untreated for several hours.
Try to stay safe out there in the hot weather! If you use common sense, you and your pets can safely enjoy the summer sun.