Summertime brings warm weather to be enjoyed by everyone, including our pets. However, warm weather can bring health risks to your pets. Being aware of these risks, as well as how to prevent them and help to manage them should they occur, can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
The weather dangers in the summer are not strictly related to heat. In fact, heat and humidity combine to create unhealthy weather.
This chart developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows how the combined effect of heat and humidity creates a more significant health hazard than either by itself.
A frequently used calculation to determine the level of risk with the weather is to add the temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) and the percent humidity. For example, if it is 80o F, and 70% humidity, the result is 150. If this total number is greater than 140, the risk for heat-associated events is high, and the activity or exercise should be reconsidered.
This is especially true for dogs with pre-existing respiratory problems such as laryngeal paralysis, tracheal collapse, stenotic nares; and for breeds with shortened noses, such as Boston terriers, Pekingese, Shih Tzu, pugs, bulldogs, and Lhasa Apso dogs
Every year, hundreds of pets die of heat-related complications after they were left in parked cars on warm days. A recent study on heat stress from enclosed vehicles showed that the internal temperature of a parked car can rise 20o in just 10 minutes, and in an hour, can increase over 45o F. What's more, cracking the windows to allow for cooling did not significantly slow this heat rise down (it only slowed the heat gain by about 1/4o every 5 minutes). In the summer, our pets are much better left at home to help avoid this dangerous situation.
The asphalt surfaces our dogs are exposed to, including driveways and roadways, can reach over 150o F on a summer day.1 2 Other surfaces may be less hot, but prolonged exposure to any surfaces approaching this temperature has the potential to cause thermal injury.
A dog's foot pads have evolved to be tough and can withstand more than our feet can, but these hot surfaces have the potential to burn a dog's paws, especially if they are playing strenuously on that surface. Contrary to common belief, dogs will not always stop playing if their paws hurt — many will keep playing until made to stop.
Are Your Pet's Paw Pads Burned?
Signs of burned paw pads include limping, licking of paws more than usual, abnormal pad color and blisters. In severe cases, the footpads can completely come off the feet themselves. Many dogs tolerate wearing protective shoes, or booties, on their paws. These can allow for longer exposure or play time on these hot surfaces. Otherwise if the surface is too hot for us to walk on it without shoes, we should refrain from keeping our pets on it for too long.
Garden Hoses Sitting in the Sun
Many of our pets love to play with water from the hose, and what better way to keep our pets cool than to spray them with this cool water? However, it does not take a long time for the water in the unused hose to heat to a dangerous temperature. According to one study, in as little as 2 hours on a 90o F day the temperature of water in a garden hose that has been left out can reach 120o F. Let the hose run for a couple of minutes and allow the cool water to force out the hot water before playing with your pooch.
Dogs Swimming in Ponds, Lakes and Rivers
Many dogs love to play in ponds, lakes, and rivers. Some of the same risks that people are aware of apply also to pets. Currents in rivers can often be too strong for even the most advanced canine swimmers, and care should be taken to keep to an area of slower current. Even in lakes and ponds, dogs can fatigue quickly, and often do not show signs of distress before they become too tired to keep swimming. A canine life vest can help to offer buoyancy and could potentially save a dog from downing. Also, for dogs who go boating with owners, the life vest can protect them from injury if they fall off the boat or swim in the area of the boat propeller.
Dogs and Cats Can Get Sunburned
Often forgotten due to their beautiful hair coats, our canine and feline friends can get sunburned. This is especially true in areas where the hair coat is thin (for example the nose, ears and underside of their belly), and in our dogs who are clipped down for the summer, their coat is less able to protect them from getting a sunburn. Sunscreen for babies is okay to use on these dogs if they need to be in the sun for an extended period of time, and it may help reduce the risk of sun-associated skin problems such as sun burns or skin cancers.
Heat Stroke Can Be Deadly
Heat stroke is a very dangerous (and sometimes fatal) complication of overheating, when the body's cooling mechanisms are overwhelmed, and multiple organ systems in the body can shut down. When a dog starts to get hot, they do not have the capacity to sweat to cool off the same way people do, and they rely on panting to cool themselves. If the temperature rises too far, this is not enough to prevent them from overheating.
Heat stroke affects many major organ systems in the body. Due to effects on the heart and blood vessels, the pet can go into shock. Liver damage, kidney failure, intestinal damage allowing bacterial leakage, and problems with the body's blood clotting ability may occur. Brain damage may occur, and at temperatures of 105.8oF, there may be irreversible brain damage.
The Warning Signs of Overheating
Clearly, if any signs of overheating occur, action needs to be taken quickly. These signs may include: dry, tacky gums if caught early, or excessive panting, drooling, weakness and collapse, muscle tremors, and even seizures. If any of these signs are seen and you are concerned they might be related to overheating, try to cool your dog quickly. This may involve moving him to a cooler area; putting cool (not cold) water on his ears, armpits and tongue, and then covering him with cool wet towels or hosing him down with water. Please note that due to the different ways we cool from our pets, a fan will likely not improve their conditions very much, and might create anxiety and worsen the situation.
In a heat stroke situation, the more quickly you can rush your pet to a veterinary hospital, the more favorable the odds are he may be able to survive.
If your pet is admitted to a hospital in heat stroke, anticipate that he may need to be hospitalized for several days, even if the increased temperature responds quickly. These pets are cooled aggressively, and are often put on intravenous fluids therapy, monitored with bloodwork, and they occasionally even need blood transfusions. In one study investigating heat stroke, 50% of patients brought to the hospital died of complications.
Preventing Heat Stroke in Pets
The severity of heat stroke underscores the importance of preventing it from occurring. The following list includes suggestions to help prevent a pet from overheating and going into heatstroke:
- Don't exercise your pets in the hottest parts of the day
- Keep your pets indoors on hot days as much as possible; or make sure they are in a shaded area outdoors.
- Don't wait for your pets to tell you when it's too hot. Often, they don't know until it's too late. Closely monitor their condition and provide them with plenty of water.
- Avoid leaving your pets in a car on a warm day, even for a short while, and even if the windows are open.
- Take extra care of old, sick or obese animals, or those with conditions or physical features that make them more at risk of overheating.
The summer is a very fun time for people and our pets. But we need to watch out for them to prevent these tragic situations from happening.
Dr. Charles Tucker is Chief of Staff at Stratford Hills Veterinary Center in Richmond, VA. An active member of the AVMA and the VVMA, he earned a VMD degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Tucker's goal is to make every pet's visit with us an enjoyable experience.