Protect your pets from extreme heat

Boxers and other flat-faced dogs often have trouble breathing, which can create problems in hot weather. (Photo by Dom Castaldo)

By Dom Castaldo, Ph.D.

High temperatures kill dogs, cats, horses and other pets. This is why pet owners must protect their animals from heat stress during extreme heat such as we in Ogle County have been experiencing this summer. So far, we have had at least 15 days of outside temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit — and we still have the months of August and September ahead of us.

To keep pets from becoming heat stressed during extremely high temperatures, pet owners should keep the following points in mind:

Provide shelter: Dogs and cats that live outside need a cool, shady place to rest. A patch of grass in the shade can be 10 degrees cooler than a patch of grass in the sun.

A doghouse or other shelter can become hot, so pet owners should locate the doghouse under a tree or under other structures that provide shade. Pet owners must be sure the shady place is well ventilated. Also, owners should remove wood shavings and hay bedding from inside the doghouse. These materials insulate the structure and can make the dog hotter. A thermometer positioned at pet level allows owners to measure the air temperature surrounding their dog.

A portable fan blowing on the pet can benefit dogs and cats because fans help move heat away from the animal. However, pet owners must keep pets from chewing on the electric cords or from coming in contact with the blades.

Some dogs enjoy swimming. A child’s plastic wading pool is ideal for letting dogs cool themselves. However, owners should avoid letting the dog become over-exerted or getting water in its ears, which can cause infections.

Pet owners should check on pets more frequently during hot weather. Dogs with flat faces — such as boxers, pugs and bulldogs — or older and/or obese dogs often have trouble cooling themselves through normal panting mechanisms.

Supply water: Water holds a lot of heat. When animals drink, they transfer body heat to the water, removing excess heat, and cooling their bodies as they pant. Dogs and cats will more readily consume clean, cool, and fresh water. Two or three ice cubes in the water bowl will keep the water cool. As with shelter, pet owners should place water bowls in the shade. Large bowls or buckets will prevent pets from running out of water. Also, secure the water container so pets cannot overturn it.

Dogs and cats can increase their water intake 50 percent during hot weather.

Some people give their pets ice to chew on during hot weather to reduce the risk of heat stress. Most veterinarians agree ice will not harm dogs and cats. However, too much ice may cause some animals to vomit or experience abdominal cramps.

For pets that normally eat dry pet food, owners should add water to the dry food to increase water intake.

If an overheated dog refuses to drink, Dr. Allison Dascoli, a Charleston, W. Va., veterinarian, recommends rubbing the dog’s foot pads with alcohol to help cool the dog. However, this should not be done excessively, or the dog’s foot pads will dry out. If the dog doesn’t respond to this, the owner should seek veterinary care immediately.

Even if a dog or cat consumes enough water in hot weather, the animal might not be consuming sufficient electrolytes — sodium, potassium and chloride. Pets lose electrolytes by panting. Sports drinks contain electrolytes, but they are designed for humans and should not be fed to pets. Human sports drinks also contain a lot of sugar, which could cause digestive upsets in pets. However, electrolyte-replacement drinks are available for pets. One-half of a banana can replace some of the lost potassium in a dog. Pet owners should not add salt to their pet’s food during hot weather. Excess salt can cause kidney damage, vomiting and diarrhea.

Pet owners must not give alcoholic beverage to pets. Dogs and cats do not efficiently metabolize alcohol. While a cold beer might be refreshing to a human, it could be fatal to a dog or cat.

Diet design: The current trend in pet food formulation is low-fat content to prevent dogs and cats from becoming obese. However, pet foods containing high amounts of fat generate less body heat as it is digested than regular or low-calorie pet food.

Also, pet owners should feed their dogs and cats during the cooler part of the day — early morning or evening — or, if possible, offer small portions of food several times throughout the day. Pets need nutrients to keep cool; therefore, they need to eat.

Some pets enjoy a cold piece of watermelon or other fruit on a hot day. However, some fruit is harmful to pets. Raisins, grapes, avocados and cherries can cause rapid breathing, vomiting and diarrhea in pets, further hindering their ability to stay cool. Pet owners should consult their veterinarian before offering their pets new fruits. Also, pet owners should not give ice cream to pets. Most adult dogs and cats cannot digest milk sugar — lactose. This can lead to diarrhea, and water loss from the body. As with electrolyte-replacement drinks, ice cream products designed for pets are available.

Leave pets at home: Although pets may seem to enjoy riding in vehicles, a road trip during extreme heat can result in deadly heat stress. Also, travel or exposing your pet to a new environment or unfamiliar animals may stress them. Some stress hormones increase body temperature.

Pet owners must NEVER leave their pets in a car with the windows closed. The temperature inside a car can rise to dangerous levels quickly. If you see a dog or cat in a car with the windows closed and the engine not running, call the police.

Dogs and cats will likely prefer a brushing to a car ride. Removing dead hair can help a dog or cat dissipate body heat into the environment.

Reschedule exercise: Pets — like people — benefit from regular exercise. However, during extreme heat, pet owners should exercise their animals during the morning or evening, when temperatures are cooler. If the exercise includes a walk, owners should bring an extra bottle of water for their pets.

Veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker of Hoffman Estates, Ill., tells pet owners not to walk pets on asphalt surfaces, such as streets. The hot surface will injure the dog’s foot pads.

Owners must protect their pets during hot weather. However, if pets show signs of heat stress — excessive or loud panting, dark red gums, lethargy, rapid pulse, glazed eyes, vomiting and/or bloody stools — the owner should seek medical attention.

Dr. Dom Castaldo lives in Mt. Morris. He is a biology instructor at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, and can be contacted via e-mail at

From the Aug. 3-9, 2011, issue

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