Summer Problems

Pete Wedderburn
15th May 2020 - 7 min read

The summer is here, and with luck, as you’re reading this, you’ll be enjoying a decent spell of hot weather. This month, I’m focussing on seasonal summer risks to the pets in your care.

Heat Stroke

Most people are aware of the risk to dogs left in cars on sunny days, but cars are not the only dangerous places, and cats can be affected too. There are potential problems whenever an animal is left in an enclosed space with no shade or no water on a sunny day.

Additionally, when a dog is excited or very active e.g. after heavy exercise, the internal heat produced by muscular effort has an additive effect to the high environmental temperature, and heat stroke commonly results.

Cats are rarely affected by heatstroke: they often have lighter coats than dogs, and they tend to be more sensible about finding cool spots to relax, but all the same, attention needs to be given to ensuring their comfort in hot weather.

The biggest summer health issue in pets is heatstroke in dogs: vets see dogs dying from this every summer, despite the usual warnings. Part of the problem is that dogs have a specific way of losing heat that is often not properly understood.

How Dogs Cool Down

Dogs do have sweat glands in the pads of their feet but panting is their most important heat-losing process, by far. Their breathing becomes rapid and short (up to 400 breaths per minute), the mouth is opened and the tongue becomes enlarged as its blood supply is increased. The rapid movement of air over the moist surface of the tongue causes evaporation of water, carrying excess heat out of the body. If you put your hand in front of a warm dog that’s panting, you’ll be surprised to feel the heat of their breath.

Panting is an extremely effective process of heat loss, as long as the immediate environment around the dog is cooler than the animal. If a dog is in a warm area (such as a car, an enclosed room, or even outdoors on a warm sunny day), not enough heat is lost by panting, and the animal overheats.

Panting uses large amounts of water. Which is why it’s essential that dogs have access to plenty of fresh water in hot weather. With every breath, half a teaspoonful of water may be lost by the tongue in the cooling process: if this is not replaced, the dog will rapidly become dehydrated, and their body temperature will escalate rapidly because there is not enough moisture on the tongue to continue to lose heat.

Signs Of Heat Stroke

It’s important to be aware of the signs of heat stroke, so that affected animals can be identified and treated as soon as possible. You’d think it would be obvious, but it’s easy to be mistaken. Especially if you don’t link the situation of the animal with the risk of heatstroke.

If a dog was discovered collapsed in a hot car, everyone would know that it was heatstroke. But if a dog became dull and unwilling to walk during exercise in the sun, many people would not slow to realise that simple overheating was the cause.

The most obvious signs are panting and an increased pulse rate. Affected dogs stand still, looking anxious, panting rapidly, and unable to do anything else. They feel hot to the touch and the body temperature may be over 104’F, and up to 109’F. If a dog is not treated, the body temperature will continue to rise until the dog collapses. Vomiting and diarrhoea may occur, the dog enters a coma, and will often die.

What To Do If Your Dog Overheats

This is a situation where first aid can be life-saving. Obviously, the first thing is to remove the dog from the overheated situation, get into the shade and out of the sun. The dog should then be immediately immersed in a bath of cold water. If this is not possible, soak the dog with cold water either from a hose or using a bucket. The skin should be massaged vigorously, and the legs flexed and extended, to maximise the blood flow to skin and limbs.

The dog should be rushed to the vet as soon as possible after a 10-minute cold bath. The vet will be able to give other treatments to bring the temperature back to normal. See the adjacent table for ten rules for dogs in hot weather. It could be worth posting these on the wall in your reception area, to highlight the risk to your customers during spells of hot weather.

Burnt Feet On Hot Surfaces

In theory, dogs and cats could suffer from damaged feet after walking on hot pavements and roads in warm weather. In practice, this is not a problem that’s often seen.

Animals are generally sensible enough to avoid behaviour that causes them discomfort. The only time that I see burnt paws are when animals have accidentally stood on cooking surfaces that cause burns instantaneously. 

Still, people should remember that pets walk on “bare feet”. They should never be forced to walk on surfaces that we humans would find uncomfortably hot in warm weather.

Grass and Grass Seeds

The summer growing season can lead to several grass-related problems for pets.

a) Cats

It’s common for cats to enjoy chewing grass, and sometimes they regurgitate soon afterwards. This does not normally cause a problem. But sometimes a blade or stem of grass goes “the wrong way” at the back of the throat. Instead of being regurgitated, it lodges inside the nasal cavity, causing a severe bout of sneezing.

Sometimes the green tip of the offending blade of grass can be seen at the nostril, and if this is gently tugged, it can be removed. However, it is often much longer than you would imagine being possible. It can cause extreme discomfort when pulled, so a visit to the vet is needed so that it can be removed under anaesthesia.

b) Dogs

Dogs love walking and running through fields, and problems can be caused when they stand on a particular type of sharp-ended, bristly grass awn. This can penetrate the soft skin between the dog’s toes, subsequently tracking into their flesh. If a dog starts to limp and is licking the foot, it’s worth checking carefully for penetrating grass seeds.

Sometimes they can be spotted and simply pulled out. But unfortunately, they are often buried deep beneath the surface of the skin, requiring surgery to be removed. If you exercise dogs in areas with this type of grass, it’s worth quickly inspecting the underside of their feet when they come back in after walks.

Pollen Problems: Hay Fever and Skin Disease

Dogs and cats don’t often suffer from sneezing and runny eyes like humans with hay fever: instead, the higher summer level of pollens and dust in the air often aggravate the problem of allergic skin disease.

Many pets need to have a summer boost to the medication needed to control itchy skin. This can be a cocktail of antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs (like prednisolone or cyclosporines), regular shampoos, etc. If a boarded animal has a history of skin disease, it’s worth asking if they receive regular medication, and if you should increase the dose levels in case of aggravation while the animal is staying with you.

Insect Stings and Snake Bites

Animals are generally resilient to insect bites: a transient pain reaction is all that is normally seen. Occasionally, a dog’s face will begin to swell up if they have been stung by an insect in the mouth. If this happens, they should be taken to a vet for urgent treatment, to avoid the risk of their breathing passages becoming obstructed in any way. Boxers and Labradors seem to be more prone to this type of reaction than other breeds.

Snake bites are a different story, they can be genuinely life-threatening. The adder is the only venomous snake in the UK, but it is confined to specific areas. If you live in such an area, it’s likely that your vet will keep anti-venom in stock, so that if a pet is bitten, they can be given instant treatment. If you don’t know whether this is a risk in your area, just ask your local vet.

Increased Work Pressure at Kennels and Catteries

The summertime tends to be the busiest time for kennels and catteries. It’s important to plan for this level of workload. As a vet, I tend to see more serious health issues from boarding establishments at this time of year. The sooner a problem is spotted, the easier it can be treated. Make sure that you have adequate staff and sufficient space for the increased workload that many of you will be dealing with at this time of year.

Burn out for Kennel and Cattery Owners

As a final point, make sure to look after your own physical and emotional health at this busy time of year. It’s good to be busy, but if you’re too busy for too long, the stress will take its toll. Make sure that you give yourself a decent break once the children go back to school and all of those pets finally go back home.

Rules To Follow

  1. Never leave a dog alone in a car
  2. Be aware of keeping your dog cool when on car journeys together. For example, leave a window open for fresh air and stop regularly to check your animal properly
  3. Always ensure a plentiful supply of drinking water.
  4. Never leave a dog in a sunny place with no shade.
  5. Give long-haired dogs a short clip.
  6. Exercise the dog out of the heat i.e. morning or evening.
  7. Take your dog for a cool swim rather than a walk.
  8. Give your dog 10% less food than normal.
  9. Give the meals at cooler times of the day e.g. morning and evening.
  10. Carry water with you when out on hot days, and give your dog frequent small amounts.