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Hot-Weather Tips for Pet Owners

Help your four-legged friends chill out, even in the humid dog days of summer's end.
Martha Stewart Living, June 2010

When the mercury rises, so does a pet's chance of suffering from heat-related illness. "In nature, animals choose habitats that keep them cool," says Marc Morrone, host of Martha Stewart Living Radio's "Ask Marc, the Petkeeper," on Sirius XM Radio. "But with pets, it's our job to provide an environment that reduces dehydration, sunburn, and heatstroke risks." Keeping them indoors -- with fans or air-conditioners -- is the best choice. Before heading out, take precautions.

How Hot Is Too Hot?
There's no official threshold for an animal's heat tolerance, says Deborah Mandell, a critical-care veterinarian and a pet-care adviser for the American Red Cross. A pet's ability to acclimate depends on the temperature that she's used to (pets accustomed to cold weather will be more sensitive to heat than those that live in warm climates year-round). In general, if you're too hot, your pet probably is, too. All animals are susceptible to overheating -- including small mammals such as hamsters, rabbits, and guinea pigs -- but some are more vulnerable.

Obese animals and those with heart or lung diseases are at greater risk, as are pets with thick coats, short noses, or flat faces, including boxers and English bulldogs. Respiratory problems that prevent effective panting also pose a risk, since this is how animals get rid of most excess heat.

Here Comes the Sun
The blazing sun is no friend to your pet, especially if she has light or white fur. If you trim her coat, leave it at least an inch long to minimize sunburn. Ask your vet about pet-specific sunscreen (or check online for brands such as Doggles). Areas of exposed skin (ear tips, bellies, noses) are most likely to burn. Note that some pet sunscreens contain salicylate, an ingredient that's fine for dogs but toxic to cats, so steer clear of those.

Drink Up
Mandell says animals instinctively know how much to drink but may not consume enough in the early stages of overheating. And overheating and a lack of drinking water can cause dehydration. Signs include dry gums, sunken eyes, lethargy, and skin that has lost turgidity (its ability to snap back into place when pulled, as with the skin on the back of the neck).

When outdoors, always carry water. Offer it to your pet frequently (but never force drinking), and pour some on her when she needs cooling. A child's wading pool also can be a refuge. Indoors, have drinking water available, and put out frozen water bottles for small pets to lie against. A bigger pet might enjoy a water-filled bed (check pet stores for brands such as Cool Bed III).

Play It Cool
Always keep safety in mind when it's hot. Be sure open windows have sturdy screens free of holes, to prevent falls (or keep windows closed and air-conditioning on). Never leave a pet in a parked car. It can quickly reach 120 degrees inside -- even on mild days if it's sunny -- and cracking the windows is little help.

Limit a dog's exercise to brief walks on the hottest days, and steer her toward grass, since hot pavement can burn her paws. Cats discover cool retreats more easily than dogs, so dog owners in particular must monitor their pet's comfort. "A dog might not stop chasing her ball, even if she's starting to overheat," Mandell says. She recommends replacing that game of fetch with a cool swim.

Heatstroke Help
A pet can suffer heatstroke even on an 80-degree day if she hasn't acclimated to the temperature. Here's what to do for your dog or cat.

Signs
Elevated body temperature
Panting or drooling
Inability to be calmed (dog)
Weakness or inability to stand
Fast heart rate
Vomiting or bloody diarrhea
Seizures
Wobbly walk, stupor, collapse

Steps to Take
1. Remove pet from direct heat.

2. Take her temperature with a pediatric rectal thermometer. If it's more than 104 degrees (normal is 100 to 102.5 for dogs and cats), begin cooling measures. Spray her with cool water; put cool, wet towels on her head, neck, feet, chest, and abdomen; or direct a fan toward her. Add measures gradually, taking her temperature in between, so you don't cool her too quickly.

3. Recheck temperature. At 103 degrees, stop cooling measures.

4. Take your pet to a veterinary hospital immediately -- it's important to get her checked even if she seems to be back to normal.