It's not only we humans who feel the heat during the summer months1. Our pets need some extra care and attention to keep them healthy and happy. Whereas we can remove our clothing during a heat wave, animals are stuck with their fur coats. All of the following pets are susceptible to death by heatstroke.
Sunburn and Skin Cancer
Albino, white animals, or those with white on their faces - particularly their ears, forehead and nose, due to the fur being thinner on these areas - need special care and attention to prevent sunburn, which can lead to skin cancer and the surgical removal of their ears. White or partially white cats appear to be most prone to this condition, perhaps because of cats' love of basking in the sun. Here are some steps you can take to reduce the risks:
- Keep your cat indoors as much as possible, particularly in the couple of hours around midday.
- Don't let it lie on the windowsill in the glare of the sun.
- Make a shaded part of your garden attractive to your cat: plant some catnip, place their blanket or bed there and a few toys (if your cat likes toys).
- If concerned, contact your veterinary practice.
Similar precautions should be taken with other white, or partially white-faced animals. Horses with pink noses, for example, can also get badly burnt and need sunscreen. Many horses wear fly-hoods or fringes in the summer, but these still leave the nose exposed. Pet sunscreen is very rare, and hard to get hold of (products may be different for different species). Although a minority of human external lotions and creams can be safely used on pets, always check with your vet or pharmacist that these are non-toxic and safe to use. Check with your insurance company that they will be covered if they have a reaction on application or if they lick it off. Never give your pet human by-mouth medication.
Dogs dehydrate quickly in warm weather and need an ample supply of fresh cool, not cold, water. More than one bowl is sensible in case they spill it. Some dogs will not drink once the water goes below a certain level, so having two means they won't go without. They should be drinking little and often. Dogs need to have access to fresh drinking water throughout the year, but this is more important during the summer. Whereas humans perspire and sweat to lose excess heat, dogs' sweat glands are on the soles of their feet and, with almost 90% of their body covered with hair, they pant and dribble - which means they have to replenish lost fluids constantly. A good idea is to add some ice cubes to your dog's water bowl.
There are various ways you can help your dog keep cool in the heat, such as using a water spray. You can purchase specially designed 'cool beds', which are meant to help regulate their body temperature. If they overheat, soaking them in cool (not cold) water and rubbing it right down to the skin is more beneficial than covering them with a wet towel. Don't forget underneath as well, the groin and 'armpit' area.
Don't Leave Your Dog in the Car
One of the most potentially life-threatening things you can do to your dog on a warm day is leave it in your parked car. The inside of a car becomes like a hot oven under the sun's glow. One incident where dogs of various breeds and sizes2 had to be rescued from cars by police happened in the early 1980s: six died of heat stroke, while others needed resuscitation and veterinary care. They had been left in parked cars in a car park in Kinross, Scotland while their owners were attending an indoor boot sale. In June 2009, two police dogs died after being left in their handler's private vehicle.
The best idea of all is to leave your dog at home, if it's simply going to be left inside the car, so check your destination allows dogs before travelling. If it does, try to avoid travelling during the hottest part of the day. Ensure the dog is not in direct sunlight, and take plenty of water. On long trips, stop frequently, they should be drinking little and often, not gulping large quantities. If you have to go alone and may need to visit the little person's room, consider whether your dog really needs to come with you. Never allow your dog to hang their head out of the window when driving.
It's not only the insides of cars that can become like an oven on a warm day. Structures specifically designed as suntraps, such as conservatories and greenhouses, also present a potential danger of heatstroke and are therefore not suitable places to leave a dog, or any other animal, for any amount of time. Careful planning when going on a camping holiday with a dog will be required, as caravans and tents are also potentially life-threatening places to leave them. You may need to restrict your sightseeing and visits to dog-friendly venues.
Shade is vitally important. Dogs that roam the garden and have access to the indoors can find their own shade, but if your dog is chained up or shut out in the garden, it must have access to a kennel or similar structure for shade, as well as fresh drinking water. In the UK - and in other countries too - you can be prosecuted for cruelty to animals if you leave your dog without shade and water.
Despite annual warnings from the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and other animal charities, every year many dogs and other animals still suffer the harsher effects of warm weather, including dying of heatstroke when left in unsuitable structures, or without basic necessities such as water and shade.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
As the Noel Coward song says, only 'mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.' Early morning or late evening are the ideal times to walk your dog. However, if that is not possible, you should avoid walking your dog during the couple of hours around midday.
Blue Flag Beaches
If you like to let your dog off the leash on a quiet beach, to run around and paddle or swim in the sea, it is suggested that you avoid using beaches that have been awarded a Blue Flag, as these have strict regulations about dogs during the summer season. Be aware that the Blue Flags are awarded annually, so the restrictions may apply to different beaches in different years.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Some dogs can be as irritable and bad-tempered as some humans when made uncomfortable by heat. Dogs that are normally docile and accommodating to children prodding, poking or teasing them may uncharacteristically turn and bite. Ideally, children should be taught never to prod, poke or tease dogs in the first place.
Cats will mostly take care of themselves. They'll decide when they want to bask in the sun, or relax in the shade and can be left to their own devices - unless they come under the above criteria for skin cancer, in which case you need to assert your authority over your cat and limit their sun-basking. Cats will also need fresh drinking water available. Remember, milk is a food, not a drink: in any case, many cats are not able to digest milk, due to the natural loss of the enzyme they need to digest lactose after infancy3.
Jumping and Falling
A hazard for cats is jumping or falling from open windows above the ground floor. As people are more inclined to have not only all their windows open during the summer, but also their internal doors, this may allow cats into parts of the home they wouldn't normally have access to during the colder months. Although cats are known to land on their feet, it's not uncommon for them to need veterinary care for broken jaws and teeth: when they land on their feet, their heads tend to be forced downwards into the ground.
There are a few precautions you can take to avoid cats jumping or falling out of high windows. A long-term solution, ideal for people living with cats in high-rise flats, is either venetian or bamboo blinds, which allow the air to flow through, but not the cat out. As a short-term solution, a screen of wire mesh can be made to fit in front of the open window.
Lost and Found
Cats tend to go missing more often during the summer, when sheds are opened more often. If your cat goes missing, it's worth checking your shed, if you have one, as well as asking your neighbours to check theirs.
Rabbits and Guinea Pigs
Rabbits and guinea pigs that are kept in outside hutches have the same fresh water and shade requirements as other pets. Most people use plastic water bottles attached to the wire front of the hutch. You should be aware that the water inside these bottles gets very warm. It is a good idea to have a spare water bottle ready in a cool place to swap over with the old one at regular intervals. You can also purchase a thermal cover for the bottles, which helps to keep them cool. The hutch will need to be in the shade, even if this means moving the hutch from one part of the garden to another a couple of times a day. One possible solution to this would be to purchase a garden umbrella and base and use this to shade the hutch.
If an enclosed run is used in the garden, this needs a shaded area and the water bottle needs to be in shade and swapped over at regular intervals. As well as the shaded area, large tubing of the sort that carpets are transported in makes a good tunnel and shade for guinea pigs or small rabbits and can be cut to desired length (while you can buy clear and coloured plastic tunnels from pet shops, these won't provide the necessary shade). Something else you could do to help your rabbit or guinea pig keep from overheating is to place a frozen bottle of water - a plastic (not glass) two-litre size would be ideal - in the run, so as to create a cool area.
Rodents housed indoors, such as mice, hamsters, gerbils and rats, have the same fresh cold drinking water and shade requirements. Their cages should not be situated in direct sunlight. If your rodent is kept in a plastic or glass tank, this should be situated in a shaded part of the room, as it will heat up quickly.
Budgies, canaries, cockatiels and the like are natives of hot countries such as Australia and can tolerate high temperatures. However, they are more comfortable at around 18°C (65°F) to 29°C (85°F). As well as regular fresh drinking water, birds will also enjoy the occasional bath. You can purchase a bird-bath from pet shops, which fits into the gap of the open door of the cage, or use a small container kept separately and used only for your bird's bath. They may also enjoy a light spray of water. You can purchase a spray bottle for plants from garden centres and then use it only for water.
If you let your bird out of its cage for exercise, make sure all windows are closed and that doors leading into rooms with open windows are also closed. You can use a screen of wire mesh or strong netting to cover the open window, but be aware that a determined bird can get through a small gap. Other dangers include ceiling fans and mirrors.
Birds can get mites, which will need veterinary care. Signs of mites include a flakey-looking beak, with a spongy-looking cere (at the base of the beak). If left untreated, the beak will start to grow twisted and the bird will be unable to eat or drink.
Care will need to be taken with the placement of fish bowls and aquariums, so that they are not in direct sunlight. Small fish bowls or tanks - bearing in mind that the smaller the volume of water, the quicker it will heat up - are easy to move into a shaded part of the room, or if necessary into another room. However, careful thought should be given to the placement of large cold-water or tropical aquariums when they are originally set up, so that they will not be in direct sunlight (opposite a window). Not only will direct sunlight endanger your fish, even on cooler days it will encourage the growth of algae. A thermometer designed for fish bowls and aquariums should be purchased to enable you to monitor the temperature of the water.
Grooming your pets during the summer months when they are moulting is important - even with cats (particularly long-haired cats), who are renowned for grooming themselves and have a tongue designed for the job. There are various advantages to grooming your pet. It will reduce fur-balls in cats, you'll have fewer cat and dog hairs on your carpets and furniture, and it will give you the opportunity to check your pet for ticks or 'foreign bodies' in their fur.
Fleas, Ticks and Mites
The warm weather brings out undesirable pests, such as fleas, ticks and mites. All of the pets mentioned here are susceptible to various different types of these parasites.
Fleas, which as most pet owners will know are unavoidable, are still easily controlled. There are various products available for eliminating fleas from pets and furnishings. These include sprays, powders, drops, collars and shampoos (though some are better than others). Many off-the-shelf flea repellents are not suitable for puppies and kittens under six months old, with the exception of herbal repellents (though the effectiveness of these is questionable). However, it is this younger group that are most vulnerable to illness due to an infestation of fleas. The most effective treatments are those purchased from veterinary practices. However, they are also the most expensive.
The easiest way to find out if your pet has fleas is to stand it on white paper, or white cloth and then, using a flea comb, or a very fine-toothed comb, comb your pet. If black specks - flea excrement - fall onto the paper or cloth, your pet has fleas.
Flea eggs can be embedded in carpets and soft furnishings. Though these used to be killed off during the winter, nowadays, due to milder winters and central heating, they can lie dormant until the warmer weather arrives. Thorough cleaning of soft furnishings and hoovering in all the nooks and crannies will eliminate the flea eggs.
Though more commonly found on dogs, ticks can sometimes be found on cats too. There are various different types of tick: the sheep tick is the most common in the UK. They are small round blood-sucking parasites that jump from grass onto dogs or cats when they walk through fields. The tick attaches itself by its mouth and, if left undisturbed, will feed on the animal's blood, growing in size for several days, before eventually falling off. However, during this time they will cause your pet irritation and can transmit disease, Lyme Disease being the one most commonly spread in this way in the UK. Ticks therefore need to be removed as soon as possible.
Removal of a tick can be a bit difficult. It is important not to leave the tick's head embedded in your pet, as this may cause an abscess to develop. They can be successfully removed using a pair of tweezers: you can purchase special tick tweezers4, which are easier to use than conventional tweezers. You will also need a steady hand and a cooperative pet. You will need to rotate the tweezers as you gently pull the tick off. If you are not confident that you can remove the complete body of the tick, consult your veterinary practice.
Another method of dealing with ticks , though it is not guaranteed to work and is best tried while the tick is still small, is to put a dollop of petroleum jelly or butter on the tick. This forms an airtight seal over the tick, which has to release its grip to breathe. It then gets caught up in the jelly or butter and dies. Unfortunately in its distress, the tick may well regurgitate back into your pet, raising the chances of infection. It's best to use a tick hook.
There is a possibility that a new strain of tick has come to the UK recently, one which can transmit babesia, a potentially life-threatening canine disease, to dogs. Previously found only in Mediterranean countries, very little is presently known about this new tick's presence in the UK.
Rabbits, guineas pigs and to a lesser extent rodents are all susceptible to mites. A sign that your pet has mites is constant scratching, resulting in bald patches on their body. One source of mites is poor quality hay. Hay should be made up of various grasses: if your hay contains weeds such as thistles, it is of poor quality and should not be used.
A Walk in the Long Grass
Walks in meadows and long grass can result in dogs or cats getting grass seeds in their eyes or ears. If your pet has a grass seed or a 'foreign body' in their eye, the eye may become watery. If they get a grass seed or a 'foreign body' in their ear, they will shake their head a lot. The removal of these from such delicate areas should be done by a vet.
Another hazard is snakes or other reptiles that may be sleeping in the grass. The adder is the only poisonous snake native to the UK. However, there may be other snakes, previously pets, that the owners got fed up with and set free.
Although most snakes are likely to slither away when they sense movement nearby, your dog or cat may accidentally tread on one, or even come across one, start to play with it and get bitten. Any snake bite should be treated as an emergency. Try to keep your dog calm and as still as possible and make an immediate or emergency appointment with your veterinary practice.
Wasp and Bee Stings
Because of the different ways in which each hunts, dogs and cats are likely to be stung on different parts of their body. Cats catch their prey with their claws, and then transfer it to their mouths: therefore their paws and mouths are the most likely parts to be stung by a bee or wasp. Dogs use just their mouths, so inside or around their mouth is the most likely place for them to be stung.
Playful puppies and kittens, who tend to view everything that moves as a potential play-thing, are most at risk. If you notice your pet chasing or attempting to play with a bee or wasp, stop them. Call them by their name, throw something soft at them, or make a loud noise to distract them.
The swelling caused by a bee or wasp sting in or around the mouth or neck area can restrict the animal's breathing, so should be taken very seriously: an emergency appointment to see the vet is the most likely outcome.
You should also be aware that, as with humans, some animals can have an allergic reaction to bee and wasp stings. This could cause them to collapse5 and/or convulse. If there is swelling in the mouth or throat this can affect breathing. Immediate veterinary care will be required in these circumstances.
If the bee or wasp sting is not an emergency situation, there are a number of treatments you can use. The following are just two of them:
Bee stings are acidic - remove the sting by scraping it with a hard surface, such as a credit card and bathe the area in bicarbonate of soda. Using tweezers can squeeze more venom into your pet.
Wasp stings are alkaline - there is no sting to remove: bathe the area in malt vinegar.