As we are on the cusp of summer, the majority of the country is preparing for warmer temperatures that can potentially have adverse effects on the health of our pets.
Of course, some of us live in a climate that tends to be balmy on a year-round basis, like my native Los Angeles. Therefore, we warm-weather dwellers must always consider the health implications that frequent hot and sunny weather has for our pets.
Although May 23rd was National Heat Awareness Day, it's important to stress the need for heat-related pet safety on a year-round basis.
Why are Pets Prone to Heat-Related Illness?
Unlike humans, cats and dogs can’t clear heat in a manner that permits body cooling to a safe level when exposed to indoor or outdoor temperatures above room temperature (68-77 ºF).
The respiratory tract is their primary means of losing heat, so pets do so less efficiently than humans, who sweat through less-haired skin surfaces. This is why cats and dogs pant in response to exposure to warmer climates.
Pets lose some heat through their paw pads and skin surface, but not in the broad sense like we humans. Additionally, the hair coat adorning most dogs and cats is thicker and more generally distributed as compared to people. So, heat gets trapped inside pets’ bodies and can lead to hyperthermia (elevated core body temperature).
Brachycephalic (short faced) dog and cat breeds are especially prone to suffering from heat-related illnesses. These breeds and their mixes don’t move air as well through their respiratory tract as their longer-faced (dolichocephalic) counterparts. Juvenile, geriatric, sick, overweight, obese, and mobility-compromised dogs are also more prone to heat-induced health problems.
How Hot Is Too Hot for Pets?
The range of normal body temperatures for cats and dogs typically is from 100 to 102.5 ºF. Of course, there can be normally expected mild increases and decreases associated with activity, stress, or illness. Hyperthermia becomes dangerous when body temperatures rise above 104 ºF, as normal mechanisms of thermoregulation are overwhelmed.
As 106 ºF is reached, heat stroke occurs and causes vomit, diarrhea, collapse, seizure activity, multi-system organ failure, coma, and death.
What Should Owners Do to Keep Their Pets Safe from the Heat?
Many owners bring their companion canines out from the safe confines of their well-ventilated and/or air-conditioned homes and along for outdoor excursions that put them at risk for exposure to sun, heat, and a variety of environmental stressors. Most cats tend to stay at home and inside, and are therefore less prone to heat-associated health issues.
Yet, any time we take our pets outside of a climate-controlled environment we put them in harm’s way. Here are my top five tips to keep your pet safe despite the heat.
1. Never Leave Your Pet in a Non-Climate Controlled Car
One of the deadliest heat hazards for pets is elevated temperature experienced inside our cars.
Never leave your pet in a non-climate controlled car, even on what feels to be a cool day. A Stanford University Medical Center study (published in Pediatricsmagazine) determined that the temperature inside a vehicle can increase by an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within 60 minutes (over half of a degree per minute), regardless of the outside temperature.
The hotter your car becomes, the more likely your pet will also experience a commensurate increase in body temperature.
You may only plan to be away from the car for a few minutes, but unforeseeable circumstances can keep you away for longer. As a result, your pet will broil and potentially die inside the “glass coffin” (as cars are commonly referred to in the veterinary community).
2. Promote Your Pet’s Hydration
70-80 percent of a dog or cat’s body mass is made of water. Remarkably, losing only 10 percent of the body’s total fluids can cause serious illness.
Panting causes water to be expelled from the body through insensible body water loss. Further body fluid will be lost through the skin, digestive tract, and other organ system functioning during times of activity, illness, and when exposed to heat.
Keep your pets as hydrated as possible by always having fresh water available in the places your pets spends time and frequently offering small sips of water during activity.
You can even pre-hydrate your pet on a continuous basis by feeding fresh, moist, and whole-food diets instead of kibble.
3. Avoid Exercise During the Hottest Parts of the Day
Instead of venturing out for your daily activity between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., exercise during cooler early morning or evening times that are typically less sunny. Humidity exacerbates a pet’s inability to efficiently clear heat, so avoid exercising during warmer and more humid times.
4. Seek Shade and Take Frequent Breaks
Find locations for walking and exercise that are primarily shaded instead of those constantly exposed to the sun.
Even if you and your pooch feel fully capable of taking on challenging intensity and lengths of activity, stop and rest on a frequent basis. At least every 15 minutes is my general recommendation, but less physically fit pets and people exercising in hotter and more humid climates should stop as often as needed.
5. Schedule a Pre-Exercise Veterinary Exam
The ideal scenario would find us owners keeping our pets healthy enough for physical activity year-round. Yet, seasonal deterrents and other impedances to regular activity can cause unhealthy weight gain and loss of fitness. Before engaging in outdoor activities, especially during hotter months, schedule an examination with your veterinarian.
Especially with geriatric and less-physically fit pets, underlying illness or injury could make your companion canine or feline less able to exercise or evacuate heat from its body. Arthritis, degenerative joint disease (the progression of arthritis), cancer, metabolic illnesses (kidney and liver disease, hypothyroidism, etc.), and others could have a negative impact.
If you plan to to expose your pets to any hot environments or activity, always prioritize safety to ensure that potentially catastrophic health hazards do not occur.
If your pet accompanies you for car travel, only bring him along when going to dog and cat friendly destinations that permit pets to enter and remain in a comfortable, plentifully shaded, and low-stress environment.
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