Texas is known for hot summers that leave many residents ready for air conditioning and a cool drink. Because their bodies expel heat less efficiently and generate more heat pound-for-pound than humans, our furry friends can be even more impacted by rising temperatures.
Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical assistant professor and emergency and critical care specialist at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the dangers that summer heat may present to animals, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
“Heat exhaustion is the feeling of lethargy, discomfort, or weakness that is experienced when the body gets too hot,” Rutter said. “Heat stroke is an actual illness that occurs from increased body temperature. It can be life-threatening and cause permanent damage.”
Heat-related issues are prevented through a process called evaporative cooling, which is one of the most efficient ways for an animal to expel heat, Rutter explains. Humans accomplish this largely by sweating, but dogs and cats can only sweat through the bottoms of their feet, so they must expel heat by panting.
“Very young, geriatric, brachycephalic (short-nosed breeds), and pets with heart, respiratory, or endocrine disease are at higher risk for heat injury,” Rutter said. “Obesity and respiratory noises can also identify at-risk groups. While it’s harder to pin down, pets that aren’t acclimated to hot environments will heatstroke more easily.”
Humidity plays an important role in how efficiently an animal can expel heat. As humidity increases, water evaporation and the resulting heat exchange decreases. Once the humidity in the air reaches about 85 percent, evaporative cooling is almost totally inhibited. For pets, this can have serious consequences.
Pet owners should keep a keen eye on their animal when the weather is hot and when the humidity is high; even if you feel OK, your pet might be affected.
“Any dog that wants to take a break or is panting heavily should be given fresh, cool water and a shady spot to rest until their breathing normalizes and they want to return to activity,” Rutter said. “Motivated dogs will return to activity as soon as it is physically possible, which may not be the best plan. Owners have to make some dogs stop and cool off fully.
“As heat stress worsens, pets may have GI signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea), lethargy, weakness, red gums, and coagulation (blood clotting) changes that can cause small, red bruises to form (most commonly in the mouth, whites of the eyes, and the skin of the abdomen).”
Rutter says that cats tend to limit their activity and seek shade when heat becomes an issue, but they still should also always have access to fresh water and be in a familiar environment.
“To cool an animal, I recommend wetting the pet down with cool (not cold) water, turning a fan on high over them, and putting them in a shaded, air-conditioned environment,” she said. “If your pet is displaying signs of heat stress, you should wet them down, crank up the AC, and head directly to your veterinarian’s office. It is most definitely an emergency.”
When walking a pet in the heat, owners should also consider whether the pavement temperature is appropriate for their pet’s paws. Rutter recommends feeling the pavement with your hand; if the pavement is too hot for you to touch it, it’s too hot for your pet.
Vehicles parked with no air conditioning also can be a serious threat during warmer months.
The temperature in parked cars rises quickly even with the windows “cracked.” Rutter says that cars can become lethally hot in as little as 15 minutes, but that time is shorter for animals prone to heat injury.
“Always have your pet inside the vehicle with the air conditioning on if the temperature is 85 degrees or greater,” she said. “Even at temperatures below 85 degrees, never put your pet in the bed of a truck and never, ever leave your pet in a parked car.”
Rutter recommends that pet owners see their veterinarian with any concern for heat stress or heat stroke.
Heat injury becomes a serious condition very quickly; luckily, however, these precautions are usually effective at preventing heat stress, and a mindful pet owner should have few worries as they enjoy their summer with a furry friend by their side.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.