Dogs cool off at an Anne Arundel County park, file photo. (Linda Davidson)

Despite their animal nature, pets are just as susceptible to heat-related illness as humans.

Numerous reports of dogs left in hot cars have arisen over the past few weeks, with dogs losing their lives in New Hampshire, Portland and Toronto (according to the Humane Society the temperature inside a parked car can reach 120 degrees within 30 minutes when the outside temperature is 85 degrees).

Not only do heat threats occur in parked cars, they can also happen in your own backyard.

Unlike people, who sweat through our skin, pets cool off through their feet and tongues, and staying hydrated is essential to this process.

“The most important things people forget are fresh water and shade,” said Dr. Paige Peterson, a veterinarian in Phoenix who recommends checking and refilling pets’ water bowls frequently, and making sure pets have adequate shade throughout the day or keeping them indoors.

Dogs and cats sweat through the pads of their feet – a relatively small surface area from which to lose heat. They also pant to replace the warm air in their mouths with cooler air around them, one more reason dogs and cats can overheat if left in temperatures higher than their core body temperature (around 100 degrees).

According to WedMD, “dogs take between 10 and 30 breaths a minute, depending on their size.” Pugs and other small dogs with flat faces cannot pant as effectively. Owners should become familiar with their dogs’ normal breathing and panting rate, and take notice if it increases or changes. Heavy panting and difficulty breathing can be signs of heat stroke (other signs include difficulty breathing, fatigue, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea and even seizures).

Like other animals, pets must gradually acclimate to warmer temperatures, a chance many pets were not given during the first of this summer’s heat waves. They should exercise in cooler times of the day, and do less vigorous activity at the beginning of summer during the adjustment.

Some dog owners decide to shave their pets’ fur at the onset of hot temperatures. But while one may not think of a thick fur coat as cooling, fur can actually help insulate a pet from heat and prevent sunburn. Shaving may help long-haired breeds such as huskies to stay cool. Yet this step can be controversial.

“There has been little research done. Ultimately, it’s up to the owner,” Dr. Peterson said. “One risk is that if it is cut too short, the pet can get sunburn.”

If an owner decides to shave a dog’s coat, keeping it at least one to two inches long is a safe bet for sun protection. Cats may not benefit at all from getting shaved; their small body size and tongue-bathing help keep them cool.

Regardless of the length of a dog’s fur, Dr. Peterson suggests putting sunscreen around the eyes and on the nose of a light-pigmented dogs to help prevent sunburn on their faces.

The bottom line? Watch your pets carefully on hot days, and give them a little extra attention and care to help them – and the entire family – safely enjoy summer.

How will you help your pets stay cool this weekend? Leave a comment below.

Useful Resources

Keep dogs cool as weather heats up – Miami Herald
Hot weather tips – ASPCA
Keep your pets cool in a heat wave – The Humane Society of the United States