By Dr. Becker
Summer can be the best of times for dogs – long walks, trips to the beach, camping trips – or it can be the worst – overheating, insects, and humidity, just to name a few. Of course, how your dog's summer pans out is mostly dependent on you, which is why it's important to plan accordingly if you're including your pet in your summer plans (and I hope you do!).
Perhaps most important of all is simply ensuring your dog stays cool this summer, so I'll cover that first. If your dog gets overheated your summer plans will be over and, far worse, his health may be in serious danger.
How to Prevent Overheating in Dogs
If you're planning to be out and about on a hot summer day, running errands and such, leave your dog at home. Too many dogs have died of heatstroke because their owners left them in a hot car while they ran into the store.
Vehicles heat up incredibly fast even if it's "not that hot" out, and even if you park in the shade and leave the windows down. Not to mention, leaving a dog unattended in a vehicle in extreme temperatures is a criminal offense in 14 states.1
That being said, your dog can overheat virtually anywhere – in your backyard, for instance. The best route of prevention is simply to use common sense and keep your pet indoors during the hottest part of the day, ideally in an air-conditioned area.
When going for walks on warm summer days, do so in the morning or evening (not in the heat of mid-day) and avoid pavement, which can burn your pet's paws and even lead to overheating as the heat rises toward a small dog.
As a general rule, I don't recommend shaving pets, but if yours has a long coat, spends time outdoors during hot weather, and doesn't object to a shorter coat, consider giving her a summer trim to improve air ventilation. During romps in the backyard, a shaded kiddie pool made from a rigid material is a perfect place for your dog to cool off (and you might even want to join him). Some dogs also enjoy playing in sprinklers or a gentle spray from a garden hose.
If your dog enjoys longer walks in the summer, there are cooling coats available, but be careful. They may offer some slight relief, but they won't make it safe for your dog to exercise in extreme temperatures. Be aware, too, that some dogs are more prone to heat stress and heatstroke than others; obese dogs and flat-faced dogs (like pugs) are at an increased risk and must not overdo it in the heat.
Finally, remember that your dog pants to cool off and body heat evaporates as air moves across his tongue. When it's very humid out, your dog's ability to cool off will be slowed. And, as always, be sure you provide plenty of fresh water whenever your dog is outdoors in the summer.
Cats Need to Stay Cool Too
Heatstroke isn't only a matter for dogs; cats can suffer from it too. I recommend keeping your cat indoors, but if yours does spend time outside, make sure she's inside if the temperatures become extreme, especially during the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Also insure she has access to cool water in several locations, and you can also give ice cubes as a treat. She should have access to shady areas and should never be kept confined in an area with asphalt or concrete, which will heat up quickly (left to their own devices, cats will find the coolest spots to rest in on their own).
Indoors, your cat will also naturally seek out the coolest spots in the house (like your bathroom sink or bathtub), so allow her to sleep where she chooses, even if it seems strange. Beyond that, there are quite a few ways to help your kitty stay cool when the temperatures rise:2
- Replace warm winter beds with cooler summer options (many cats love boxes, which are a perfect summer hideout when lined with a few towels… and you can even put an ice pack underneath for added cooling).
- Leave a bowl of cool, fresh water out at all times (or a small bowl in each room).
- Freeze a bowl of water overnight then leave it out in the morning, letting your cat lick the ice as it melts.
- Some cats enjoy being rubbed with a cool damp washcloth or even a light spritz of water (others will not enjoy this at all, so let your kitty decide…).
- Brush your cat often to help him shed his winter coat (whether your cat has short or long hair, this is still important).
- Let your cat play fetch with an ice cube or try putting a favorite toy in the freezer for cooler playtime session
Road Trip and Water Safety
Is Fido coming with you on your summer vacation? Be sure you've planned accordingly ahead of time (check out the app Bring Fido for this). Be sure your hotel or campground allows pets and that you've planned for plenty of pit stops along the way. You should pack a bag for your dog too, including items such as:
- A basic first-aid kit
- An extra collar and ID tag
- Towels or blankets for bedding
- Food, treats, and plenty of fresh water
In the car, I recommend keeping your dog in a crate, as it is by far the safest method of travel with pets. However, if that's not an option, at least use a seat-belt harness (along with a booster seat if your dog is small) that will protect your pet in an accident (as well as from abrupt stops or turns).
Please do not let your dog stick his head out the window, travel in the back of a pick-up truck or unrestrained in the front seat (which is actually a misdemeanor in certain states like Hawaii, Connecticut and Illinois).
If your vacation includes a trip to the beach, you'll need to be prepared for water safety. Not all dogs can swim well, so don't assume yours can unless you know it to be the case. Your dog should wear a life jacket, especially if you'll be boating or allowing your dog to swim in open water or a fast-moving river.
If your dog doesn't always respond to commands when you call her, attach a rope to her life jacket so you can pull her to safety if necessary (this is also a good idea if you're letting your dog swim in a river).
Be aware that swimming, diving or even playing with a garden hose can lead to water intoxication (which can cause excessively low sodium levels, or hyponatremia, a life-threatening condition). Symptoms include lethargy, weakness, confusion, vomiting, seizures and coma – if you notice any of these signs, seek veterinary care immediately.
Are Trips to the Dog Park a Good Idea?
Dog parks can be a great way for your dog to get exercise and socialize with other dogs, and many dog guardians enjoy the socialization aspect as much as their pets. Of course, anytime you let a group of strange dogs off-leash in a fenced area, there's the potential for trouble on a number of levels.
Some dogs may get over-aroused at a dog park, especially if there are many dogs present or they've been playing for too long. You can spot this behavior by dogs that are playing hard –fast-paced, noisy type play that may cross the line from fun to fighting at any instant. Some dogs become hyper-excitable and will pull to get at any dog they see when you're out and about (even when you simply want to have a nice walk around the block), which can rapidly increase their body temperature, even on mild days.
Dogs at risk of becoming hyper-excitable are those that have played with too many dogs, for too long at dog parks (or also in "doggie daycare" settings).3 Your dog's personality and age will also play a major role in whether a dog park is a good summertime activity. In general, older dogs prefer playing with dogs they're familiar with, while some dogs find group play overwhelming and distressing. All dogs will also need breaks when engaging in group play, and if your dog tends to engage in fighting behavior he should not go to off-leash parks. If you are planning a trip to the dog park, here are 15 safety and etiquette tips to keep in mind.
4 More Summer Safety Tips (and Frozen Treats!)
We've covered beaches, road trips and parks… what else do you need to know to keep your pet safe, and having fun, this summer? Frozen treats! Most dogs enjoy a cool treat on a summer day just as much as you do. Simple options include frozen peas, blueberries or cut up fruit (like melon), or you can try these homemade pet treats, which can be served frozen.
I also offer frozen ice cubes made of broth or stock to my dogs, but not all dogs are candidates for eating frozen goodies. Frozen treats pose a few risks, like a potential choking hazard. Additionally, some dogs become obsessive about eating ice cubes, which can lead to GI disturbances or bloat, especially when combined with exercise. Frozen treats can exacerbate dental disease in dogs with weak enamel, and sharp pieces of ice can cause tongue and gum trauma if dogs are aggressive chewers.
Although there's no way to document if pets experience "brain freeze," as people do, when consuming cold foods or liquids too fast, we can venture to guess it's a possibility for dogs, so make sure your pet paces himself when enjoying frozen goodies. If your dog is a gulper, aggressive chewer or has OCD-like tendencies, avoiding frozen goodies is probably wise.
I also want to mention a few more safety items that are easy to forget yet still very important. From barbecues to fireworks, here are four more tips for a safe summer:
- Fireworks: Keep your pets away from any fireworks, and if they're afraid of loud noises be sure they're indoors in a safe location if fireworks are going off (this applies to thunderstorms, too).
- Barbecues: Keep your pets away from the grill and be sure your backyard gate is securely closed after guests arrive (and be sure to keep potentially dangerous picnic items, like corn cobs, skewers and cooked bones, away from pets).
- Lawn and Garden Chemicals: Many commonly used fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are toxic to pets (same goes for rodent bait). Don't allow your dog or cat access to areas of your garden, lawn, house or outbuildings where chemicals have been used. Remember to keep citronella candles, oil products and insect coils out of your pet's reach as well.
- Pests: Be on the lookout for potentially problematic pests like ticks, fleas and wasps. In most cases, there are safe, effective ways to prevent or eradicate pest infestations that don't involve dousing your pet with toxic chemicals.