How to help pets beat the heat

With continued record-high temperatures affecting the planet, it’s crucial that we consider the needs of our pets who are particularly susceptible to heat stress. Regardless of the global warming phenomenon taking place, heat-related injuries, such as heatstroke, are issues veterinarians routinely encounter in our patients during the summer months. However, there are some essential steps that pet parents can take to keep their furry loved ones safe and avoid emergency hospital visits.

Heatstroke in pets is a condition in which they become overheated, with their body temperatures rising to above 103 degrees Fahrenheit; if left untreated, this can lead to a life-threatening situation. Unlike humans who remove excess heat via sweating — a process enabling us to cool down through evaporating moisture from our skin — dogs dissipate heat by panting. The evaporation of moisture from their nose and lungs through rapid inhalation and exhalation allows them to eliminate heat.

When ambient temperatures are excessively high, however, with no availability of shade or colder indoor areas to retreat into, there is no amount of panting that can help cool affected pets. Moreover, this evaporative mechanism to eliminate heat is greatly hindered in high humidity. This is why veterinarians stress the importance of keeping pets inside during hotter periods of the day, as well as ensuring access to shade and plentiful water sources. 

By the same token, leaving dogs locked inside cars, even with windows cracked open, is unanimously condemned by veterinarians. Within a mere 10 minutes, the temperature inside a car on an 85-degree day can rapidly rise to 102 degrees — so, even quickly popping into the store and leaving your pet in the car is not advisable. If a dog is confined inside these oven-like conditions, they are unable to compensate, and the ensuing dehydration and internal organ damage can result in a medical emergency and tragic fatalities.  

“Brachycephalic” or “flat-faced” breeds, such as pugs and bulldogs, are particularly vulnerable to heat stress due to the shortened snout and thus reduced capacity for temperature regulation via panting. Pets with pre-existing respiratory or cardiac disease, as well as overweight and senior pets are also higher-risk candidates. Therefore, even greater care needs to be taken noting the warning signs of distress in these patients and avoiding liable situations.

While it is beneficial to maintain our pets’ exercise routines for optimal health, the hottest periods of the day can pose significant risks for heatstroke and should be avoided. Exercising your pet during intense periods of sunlight or high temperatures can dangerously overexert them. So, limiting outdoor exercise in these conditions should be prioritized. It is also important to note that prolonged sun exposure can place them at greater risk of sun damage leading to skin cancer; just like in humans, melanoma is a cancer that can adversely affect our pets. 

If bringing pets out for walking, it is essential to consider the impact of concrete and asphalt surfaces exposed to the scorching sun. Contrary to popular belief, our pets’ seemingly resilient paws are rather sensitive and liable to physical insults, including heat injuries. Therefore, my recommendation would be feeling the pavement with the back of your hand prior to walking, to determine whether it is an appropriately safe temperature and thereby protecting their paws from potential harm.

Pets often struggle to show or tell us when they are experiencing discomfort, so it is important to look out for tell-tale warning signs of heat stroke; these can include excessive panting and labored breathing, restlessness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, lethargy, lack of responsiveness to stimulation, a glazed-over facial expression, collapse and even seizures. 

If you notice your pet experiencing possible signs of heat stress, it is important to implement cooling methods such as providing cold water to drink, applying cold soaked towels to their paws and skin, keeping them inside air-conditioned spaces, and immediately consulting with your veterinarian. Any critical signs of heat stroke, such as a lack of responsiveness or collapse, warrants immediate veterinary attention; time is of the essence and rushing them directly to the hospital for emergency treatments could save your pet’s life.

This summer season has had an impact on us all, but our pets rely entirely on pet parents being as informed as possible about these dangers. With a little knowledge, and these simple veterinary tips, you can help safeguard your beloved pets from the most preventable causes of heat injuries.

Dr. Sy Woon is a practicing veterinarian and is one of the Florida state representatives for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, as well as founder of PetParentsPro Studios, a video platform designed to deliver free education to pet parents.