Summer Pet Threats: Tips for Owners

Most of us look forward to summer activities—rollerblading, biking, swimming, walking or just sitting in the shade. And for pet owners, it’s especially refreshing to get outdoors for some playtime with Fido. But there are some major health concerns to watch out for.

Heat stroke is a common summer affliction for humans and can also hit pets, who, unlike humans, can’t cool down through perspiring. First and foremost, never leave your pet alone in a vehicle—even for a short period of time. Whether the windows are up or down or your car is in the shade or not, a car can reach 120 degrees in a matter of minutes, according to the Humane Society, and in such high temperatures your pet will likely overheat, resulting in possible injury or death.

Owners of outdoor cats should make sure they have access to clean, fresh water and plenty of shade. But veterinarian Greg Hammer, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says that while cats can certainly overheat, hyperthermia tends to be much more of a problem for dogs. "Cats seem to be a lot smarter about getting out of the heat. In fact, I don't know that I've ever seen a heat-stricken cat," says Hammer, based in Dover, Del. "It’s more of a dog problem especially for some of the dogs that don't want to stop playing, like the Labradors, who just don't know when to stop." So, as owner and caregiver it’s your job to know when enough is enough. To prevent heat stroke, always carry fresh water for your dog during hot days. Do most of your outdoor playtime during the early morning or late evening when it has cooled off, avoiding the hottest hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Early signs of heat stroke include rapid breathing, dry mouth and nose, a rapid heart rate, vomiting, glazed eyes and instability. A dog’s natural body temperature is usually between 101 and 102 degrees, so if your dog is exhibiting any of these symptoms, Hammer suggests taking the animal’s temperature with a rectal thermometer. If the dog’s temperature is 103 degrees or less, cool him off with the hose or a cool (not cold) bath. If he is at 104 degrees or higher, take him to the vet’s office or local emergency pet center ASAP. And if you’re unable to take the animal’s temperature or he seems to be really distressed, seek immediate medical help.

Every minute counts, so start cooling him down on the way to the doctor with ice packs, says Louise Murray, director of medicine at the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York. Your veterinarian has several techniques for cooling an overheated animal, she says. Those animals who survive heat stroke usually have no lasting complications, though organ damage sometimes occurs. And in the worst cases, the animals expire.

Although it might sound like a good idea at the time, avoid the beach unless you know there will be plenty of shade and fresh drinking water and keep your pet away from the pool unless you are supervising his swim time. If you’re swimming in the ocean, make sure to rinse any salt water off your dog after he takes a dip and watch him in case he is drinking the salt water, which can be life-threatening. If your dog insists on drinking from the ocean, then the beach is best avoided.

City dwellers need to watch out for sidewalks. Hot asphalt can make your dog’s body temperature go up very quickly, experts say. "Dogs can actually get blistered paws, so try to walk them on the lighter-colored asphalt, where it's not as hot as the street, or in the grass,” Murray advises. “It's also good to just bend down and touch the surface they're going to be walking on.”

Other major concerns for pets in the summer?

And now for what’s surely the creepiest summer menace for dogs. Hammer warns owners of older dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors to be on the lookout for, of all things, maggots. For breeds with long hair that is easily matted (like retrievers, malamutes, huskies and collies), there is a high risk that flies may lay eggs under their coats near the skin where humans might not see them.

"Those are real sad cases, because that's common sense, too, but maybe not as much," Hammer says. "You don't think about brushing your dog as much as you do about keeping him out of the sun, but he can be in the shade in 95-degree weather and still have plenty of problems with flies and other bugs. Almost always when the heat and humidity get high in areas with flies and bugs, grooming your dog and checking under the fur can save a lot of lives.” Because maggots are caused by flies, they are a bigger problem in rural areas for outdoor dogs, but Murray says even one fly can cause maggots, so it is vital that owners groom their pets regularly and make sure the hair is not matted. In fact, grooming should be a high priority for any long-haired dog owner, year-round, so you can detect any abnormalities on the skin and prevent matting. This rule applies in winter as well because badly matted hair can also cut the circulation off from the limbs. If you notice any skin irritations, take your animal to the doctor to be treated.

For more tips about summer pet care, visit the Humane Society, or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals online.