As a pet owner, here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: If it’s too hot outside for you, then it’s way too hot for your dog.
Jason Nicholas, veterinarian and chief medical officer at Preventive Vet, says once weather hits 80 degrees Fahrenheit (which seems like Antarctica compared to last week’s 100-plus degree heat wave), pet owners should start taking precautions. Nicholas says he’s seen far too many cases of dogs with heatstroke, a deadly, but completely preventable, condition.
Why can't dogs handle the same weather that humans can? As much as the guy with long blonde hair may look like his similarly-styled Afghan hound, dogs and humans are separate species with much different tolerances to temperature. We have the luxury of being swathed in a massive, perspiring organ that cools us from head to toe. But dogs' thick fur coats make it harder for them to get rid of heat.
Instead of sweating, the main way a dog lowers its body temperature is through panting. These heavy, quick breaths expel heat and cause moisture to evaporate, which cools the blood in the mouth and tongue. However, certain conditions make this technique ineffective. In high humidity, evaporation happens more slowly—which means that even in a nice, shady refuge, no amount of panting will bring down a dog’s internal temperature.
Plus, this method of cutting heat doesn't work as well for all canines. Take “smush-faced dogs” like pugs or Pekinese: Those with squashed noses have a hard enough time breathing as is, so they will struggle more when it’s hot. The same goes for elderly dogs or ones with breathing conditions. Puppies are also at higher risk for heatstroke because they haven’t fully developed yet, which means your baby ball of fluff doesn’t have the same mechanisms for regulating temperature as an adult dog. If you have the best (and in the case of heatwaves, worst) of both worlds, a smush-faced puppy can face trouble at just 75 degrees.
Since it’s up to you pawrents out there to help canines beat the heat, we’ve dug up some tips to keep your dog safe in the sun—and maybe even cooler than you!
Leave your hound at home
It seems impossible to leave the house when a pair of big, misty eyes are begging you to stay. Some of us can’t even grab groceries or a coffee without bringing our furry friends along. Still, when it’s heat wave-hot outside, the best place for your furry friend is exactly where you would want to be: at home beside the air conditioner.
But in confinement, some dogs get restless and rambunctious. If you’ve made the decision to stay indoors, don’t worry—this doesn’t mean your pet has to forgo exercise for the day.
“It doesn’t have to be all physical activity,” says Nicholas. “People don’t realize that playing brain games like hide-and-seek or teaching them a new trick will really wear dogs out.”
Try an interactive dog puzzle or a snuffle mat (a soft toy dogs have to nose through to find treats). If you’re not home to teach your old dog new tricks, leave them with a frozen Kong stuffed with goodies—pumpkin, peanut butter, and Greek yogurt make a great pupsicle!
Stay safe in the sun
If you must take your dog out with you, here’s tip number one: Never leave your dog in a hot car, not even for a second. There are SO many warnings about this out there, but unfortunately, it continues to happen. Even with the car on and AC running, vets like Nicholas say it’s still not worth the risk. It doesn’t take long for temperatures in an enclosed car to reach deadly levels, and a dark dashboard or seat can spike up to a sweltering 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
While it doesn’t get quite that hot outdoors, leaving your pet tied up in direct sunlight isn’t a good idea either—a few minutes under the blazing sun can quickly lead to heat exhaustion. Humans can tolerate, even bask in, heat for longer periods of time because our sweaty, slick skin will cool us down. But hair-covered dogs can’t do that.
Still, unless your pet is potty-trained, you'll eventually have to walk your dog. While we can’t hide from the heat forever, we can avoid times of peak temperatures. Nicholas recommends going for outings in the early mornings and evenings, when the air is a little cooler. While you're out, keep walks short and bring water along to keep your pup hydrated.
What about a hyperactive or ball-obsessed canine that loves to run around? It seems counterintuitive, but in hot weather, even these energetic pups should stick to walking. Running pumps up heart rates, and muscles hard at work produce more heat. For us humans, the sweat we produce while exercising is like an air conditioner on the go, but that’s not the case for those who sweat by mouth. They should stick to more sedate activities, at least until it cools off outside.
Dress for success (and coolness)
When you take out your dog in the heat, make sure you dress it in some protective gear.
For example, if you have a dog that needs to wear a muzzle on walks, Nicholas says to make sure it's still able to pant. He says he’s seen many a pet on a hot day with jaws cinched together, unable to even open its mouth, let alone pant.
“It’s not fair to the dog, they can’t release heat,” he says. “Try a basket muzzle or one of the rubberized ones—they can still pant in those, and won’t be able to bite.”
It’s not just dog mouths that need attention in sweltery weather. With scorching sun comes scorching sidewalks. It may look ridiculous (and extremely cute), but Nicholas says dog booties—preferably with rubber soles—can protect paws from burning. If your pupper insists on going barefoot, you should still take action to protect those paws. "Avoid blacktop and cement," Nicholas says. "Try to walk on the grass, and seek out shade when you can." Nicholas also says to avoid sunny beaches. We’ve all experienced the shock of stepping barefoot onto piping hot granules of sand. Even a dog’s resilient paw pads are no match for that burn, so avoid the siren song of the sand.
Other than booties, there’s one other acceptable summer fashion accessory for dogs: cooling vests. That's just what it sounds like—a wet vest you wrap around your dog before walks. This garment facilitates evaporation to help cool down the animal.
Summer skin- and fur-care
If you have a shaggy pet like a Chow Chow or sheepdog, your instinct might be to shave those oppressive locks for the summer. But fur isn’t only for keeping animals warm in the winter. In fact, it serves the opposite purpose in warm months, both cooling and protecting skin.
When summer arrives, dogs shed their winter undercoats but retain a top coat. This lighter layer of hair insulates heat, keeping it away from the body. Plus, when Spot sprints, the thin topcoat flaps up and down like a million little fans to air out the hot skin beneath. To help along this summer coat, Nicholas recommends brushing. "Brushing your dog helps get rid of the undercoat they’re losing," he says, "that will be trapping more heat than necessary.”
A dog's summer layer protects against not only heat, but also the sun's harmful UV radiation. “I don’t recommend shaving because it can increase risk for sunburn and skin cancer,” Nicholas says. If you've already shaved your dog, or you own a mutt with a bare butt like a Chinese crested, you can still protect its skin with Epi-Pet, an FDA-approved canine sunscreen. For light-skinned dogs, apply the same sun protection to exposed areas like noses, bare bellies, and tips of ears.
Look for symptoms of heat stroke
Finally, when the weather is particularly hot, it's important to keep an eye on your dog's behavior. Pay particular attention to the following symptoms of heat stroke in animals:
- excessive or exaggerated panting
- thick saliva
- dark red gums
- swollen tongue
- rapid heartbeat
- heavy drooling
If your dog is displaying any of these signs, take it immediately to the vet. Heat stroke kills quickly—even waiting a few minutes could lead to permanent organ damage or death.
One last treat before you go
A dip in the water will cool off bare-skinned humans and furry pets alike. For those of us not lucky enough to live in Potomac, Maryland—which boasts a K9 Aquatic Center—a sprinkler or wading pool can help everyone escape the heat, at least temporarily.
A boxer basking in his new dog-sprinkler toy.