Ironically, the dog days of summer — the hottest time of the year — are not always good for dogs. Dr. Jennifer Reinhart, a specialist in veterinary internal medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, shares tips on preventing dehydration and other hot weather hazards that could require a trip to the emergency room.
Signs of dehydration
“Dehydration is the absence of water from tissue, and mild dehydration is virtually impossible to spot,” says Reinhart. “When it gets serious, the big signal is a decreased skin turgor.”
Turgor is the level of fullness and tension. One way to test the skin is to lightly pinch your dog’s scruff; when you let go, if his skin continues to look pinched instead of snapping back into place, that indicates low skin turgor and may mean your dog is dehydrated. Reinhart points out that older dogs normally lose that springiness in their skin, so dehydration may be harder to detect in elderly pets using this method.
Another way to check for dehydration is to lift your dog’s lip (if he lets you) and examine the gums. If the tissue seems drier than normal, this could be a sign of water loss. If a dog is severely dehydrated and sick already, his eyes may actually sink a little in their sockets. Of course, dehydration also makes dogs less active, so owners should pick up on any cues that their dogs is slowing down, especially when exercising outside.
“Most dogs and other animals with adequate access to water will keep themselves properly hydrated,” says Reinhart.
Risks of dehydration
Problems arise when the dog doesn’t have free access to water. A dog kept outside during the day may not have a large enough bowl and may drain the dish long before you get home to refill it. (An outdoor dog also needs access to shade, whether from trees, the porch, or a dog house.)
Certain conditions, including being very active, may make dogs more susceptible to dehydration. “If you’re out jogging with your pet and notice he has slowed down, stop and offer him some water,” advises Reinhart. “If he doesn’t bounce back after a drink and a rest, he may require medical care.”
Larger, hairier breeds, especially those that originated in colder regions, can be at a higher risk of dehydration in hot, humid weather; their risk of heatstroke is even greater. A nervous dog that tends to pant excessively will need additional water, because panting increases water loss. Overweight animals will also need more water.
Lastly, keep in mind that puppies may not yet know their own limits and will play to exhaustion (as many owners know!), so make sure they have access to water.
Out and about
When hiking or camping with your dog, remember to bring extra water and a bowl for him. Avoid letting your dog drink from ponds, brooks and other natural water sources that may be contaminated, and never let him drink from sources of standing water, such as puddles and swampy pools. A good rule to follow concerning sources of drinking water is: “if you wouldn’t, your dog shouldn’t.” Remember to stop occasionally to offer him water, and he won’t need to go looking for it when he gets thirsty.
Dogs with motion sickness present another dehydration worry. In addition to the smell and mess in your car, vomiting results in your dog losing a lot of moisture. During long car trips in hot months, your dog may be panting from both heat and nerves and may need to drink frequently to replace the water lost. If your dog is prone to these, Reinhart advises asking your veterinarian before your trip about anti-anxiety medicine or drugs to prevent motion sickness to save your dog and yourself from avoidable heartache.
A word on heatstroke
Dogs, cars, and summer add up to an even more serious concern: deadly heatstroke. If your car is too hot for you to stay in it, then it’s too hot to leave your dog inside. Cracking open the window is not sufficient. Remember that your dog is wearing a fur coat at all times and has no thumbs to operate the air conditioning.
While it can be brought on by the same things — hot weather and exertion — heatstroke is not the same as dehydration. Heatstroke is a condition in which the body loses its ability to regulate its own temperature. Unlike dehydration, heatstroke can develop very quickly, in as little as 10 minutes. If your dog collapses suddenly while playing outside, giving him water is not the solution: get him inside and cool him down, or take him straight to the ER.
“One example of heatstroke that is pretty common is the dog that is taken on a run during the early morning,” notes Dr. Caroline Tonozzi, a small animal emergency and critical care specialist at the Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “The dog seems OK at first, but as the day progresses, the dog is panting, lethargic, and seems less playful. Instead of being brought inside, he stays out with his owners, where he risks a rapid decline in health.”
In such cases, if the dog’s body temperature becomes too high, he will require emergency veterinary care.
Tonozzi says other common scenarios leading to emergency room visits for heatstroke include dogs left in the car for “just a minute” or pets accustomed to running during the cooler evenings taken out for a jog at midday. Short-faced dogs like pugs can also be at high risk because of their unusual airways, and it’s best to keep them inside when it gets really hot.
Other heat hazards
Two less-deadly summer hazards Tonozzi cautions against are swelling in the throat from excessive panting as the dog works to lower an elevated body temperature and unprotected paws getting burned from walking on hot concrete or asphalt and irritation. If a surface is too hot for you to walk on with bare feet, it will burn your dog’s paws just as easily.
Taking steps to prevent dehydration, heatstroke, and other summer hazards will allow you to enjoy your fun in the sun with your pets.
If you have questions about pet health and hot weather, consult your local veterinarian.
This column was provided by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.