Q&A: A University veterinarian discusses how to keep pets cool this summer

A Husky swimming

Water activities like swimming can help cool down pets' bodies, provided pet owners keep their pets safe around pools and bodies of water, says Dr. Karyn Wesley, assistant professor of practice in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

For our furry friends, the warm season is not just about more playtime outside but also about staying safe from the risks that soaring temperatures and extra outdoor activities bring. From the dangers of heatstroke and dehydration to the problems posed by poorly ventilated spaces, there are many reasons that it is crucial for pet owners to stay vigilant.

Dr. Karyn Wesley, an assistant professor of practice in the College of Veterinary Medicine, shares her advice and tips for summer-proofing your pets by keeping them comfortable and supporting their physical and mental health during the hottest months of the year. 

What difficulties do cats and dogs face during the summer? How does a high environmental temperature affect their bodies?

Just like humans, dogs and cats can suffer from heatstroke when their internal body temperature rises. While we humans have sweat glands allover our bodies, our dogs and cats have fewer sweat glands, which are concentrated largely on their paw pads. So, they rely heavily on breathing to cool their bodies. This is why dogs and cats may breathe rapidly or event pant when they become too warm. 

Typically, heatstroke results from exposure to a hot and/or humid environment, when the body cannot dissipate heat effectively. Heatstroke causes a dangerous cascade of events, wherein the body experiences dehydration and intense inflammation affecting the function of vital organs such as the kidneys, lungs, brain and organs of the gastrointestinal tract. Heatstroke can also affect the blood's ability to regulate clot formation and could lead to spontaneous bleeding. With all this in mind, it should be apparent that untreated heatstroke can be very serious and even fatal if untreated. 

Heatstroke commonly occurs when an animal has been confined in a space with poor ventilation or exposed to the sun without shade. In places like Arizona, during summer, heatstroke can occur even with simple, routine exercise such as a slow dog walk.

There's no perfect formula for heatstroke. Some dogs and cats will tolerate warmer temperatures better than others. In general, dog breeds with shorter noses and flatter faces, like pugs, French bulldogs and American bulldogs, and cat breeds such as the Persian, Himalayan and Burmese are less heat tolerant and more likely to experience heatstroke due to the unique – and, admittedly, often inefficient – structure of their respiratory tract. 

Apart from making sure pets drink water frequently, is there anything a pet owner can do to keep their dogs and cats hydrated?

Never force your pet to drink water by pouring or squirting it into their mouth or throat. This can be dangerous. Some dogs and cats prefer to drink out of moving water, such as the water from a fountain. Fountain-type bowls are available for dogs and cats and may promote increased water intake for some animals. 

Can pet owners feed them cold water and/or ice cream to help their pets feel better during summer?

You can add ice to water to keep them cool. Some dogs like chewing on ice cubes or frozen treats but be cautious. Ice cubes and hard treats are a common cause for tooth fracture in dogs and cats, which can warrant expensive dental work. Chipped ice or cold – but not rock-hard frozen – veggies or fruits may be safer for your pet. Ice cream or new dog treats should be offered with caution. Many dogs can experience gastrointestinal upset and/or pancreatitis with new treats, especially those that are rich, creamy or fatty. 

Dr. Karyn Wesley

Dr. Karyn Wesley, assistant professor of practice, College of Veterinary Medicine.

What are your thoughts on dressing up pets, especially during summer? Does it make them feel uncomfortable?

I recommend avoiding any costume that would hold/entrap heat easily or restrict their ability to breathe comfortably. Light, breathable fabrics may be fine for dressing up your pet in the summer. In fact, this type of clothing may even provide protection from dangerous UV rays. Dogs and cats, especially those with lighter pigmented skin with less fur, may be at risk for sunburn or even cancer development from extensive UV rays exposure. 

Alternatively, sunscreen can be applied to poorly haired areas, such as the muzzle and belly. But be careful to choose a sunscreen that is labeled for pets. Many human sunscreens contain zinc oxide, which can be toxic to dogs and cats. To keep your pet from immediately licking off the sunscreen before it is absorbed, you may try feeding your pet immediately after application. 

Wesley offered several tips for keeping your pets safe this summer.

How to help pets deal with extreme heat

  • Provide plenty of drinking water. Give your pet access to plenty of cool, clean, fresh water at all times. Place multiple bowls in different spots around the house and in the yard. Ensure bowls outside are in the shade, so as to not heat or evaporate the water.
  • Listen to your pet. Listen to your pet on walks. If your pet seems hesitant to walk, they may be tired, overheated or in pain. Do not force your dog or cat to continue to exercise if they seem resistant. 
  • Walk when it's coolest. Aim for early morning or late evening for walks and exercise, as these are the coolest times of the day. 
  • Consider water activities. In the yard, you might want to have shallow kiddie pools for wading in or sprinklers for your pet to use. This is not only a source of cooling but can provide mental stimulation and enrichment. Swimming can be an excellent form of exercise provided you know how to keep your pet safe around pools and bodies of water. Ensure your pet knows which water is for drinking versus swimming and discourage excessive chlorine or saltwater consumption, which can be dangerous. 
  • Provide mental stimulation. Some dogs and cats may act lazier during the heat of summer, which is natural. If your pet is restless or bored, try some food puzzles or teach them some basic tricks. This can keep your pet's brain exercised without risking heatstroke.

What to avoid to keep pets safe

  • Avoid hot cars or other enclosed spaces. Never leave your pet enclosed in a space with poor ventilation, such as a garage, car without air conditioning or shed. Even in just 80-degree weather outside, the inside of an enclosed car can reach temperatures above 100 degrees in just 20 minutes, and more than 120 degrees within 60 minutes. 
  • Avoid hot ground. In summer, the ground – including rocks, pavement and sand – can become very hot even at nighttime, posing the risk of burns to your dog's paws and/or skin. Burns require immediate medical attention from a veterinarian. To determine if the ground is too hot, attempt to place your own bare foot in one spot on the ground for seven seconds. If it's too hot for you to safely endure, it's too hot for your pet's paws, too. Utilize booties, spray the ground with cold water from the hose, seek shade for potty breaks, lay cool towels for your dog to walk on, and avoid walking your dog outside during the hottest times of day. 
  • Never tether. Avoid tethering your pet to a tree or on a long line outside. Any tangling could prevent your dog from accessing their water or a shady spot. 

Signs of heatstroke in pets 

If your pet is spending time outside this summer, monitor for the following signs, which could indicate heatstroke: 

  • The inability to stand or stay standing without assistance.
  • Your pet seems unaware or disinterested in you and/or their normal surroundings. Stimuli such as calling their name or gently patting them does not seem to grab their attention. 
  • Heavy, rapid, loud panting. Some panting may be normal as this helps the dog cool down. But if panting persists for more than just a few minutes after the pet has been adequately cooled in air conditioning, then heatstroke may be a concern. 
  • Difficulty breathing or breathing with movement of the abdomen as though they are using extra effort.
  • Bright red, pale, tan or gray gum color could be of concern. Normal gum color should be bubblegum pink for most dogs, though some dogs with a lot of dark pigment on their skin and coat can have areas of dark brown or black gums normally. 
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea. 
  • Your dog or cat having a body temperature greater than 103 degrees.
  • Seizures or unconsciousness. 

If you are concerned your pet is experiencing heatstroke, seek emergency veterinary care right away. While you develop your plan to seek care, you can: 

  • Place a cool but not ice-cold wet cloth on the pet's ears, neck, belly and paws. 
  • Direct an electric fan toward your pet. 
  • Move your pet to a shady, cooler spot.

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