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5 tips to keep your pet safe — and comfortable — in extreme heat

Luna the French Bulldog dressed up for the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, DC, on July 4th.
Stefani Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
Luna the French Bulldog dressed up for the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, DC, on July 4th.

As oppressive heat continues to blanket much of the U.S., it's especially crucial to take precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones — furry friends included.

Heat waves can pose the same kinds of risks to animals as they do to humans, says Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

"If it's hot outside for you, it's most likely even hotter for your pet," he tells NPR over email.

Generally, he says, pets with longer or darker fur and those with flat or pushed-in faces, like pugs or Persian cats, may have extra trouble managing heat. Pets that are older, obese or have certain medical conditions could also face a higher risk of heat stroke.

Experts recommend limiting pets' outdoor exercise and activities if it's too hot. But what happens when Fido needs to use the bathroom or gets restless at home?

There are precautions you can take, like keeping your pet off hot asphalt, out of parked cars and shielded from the sun (dog sunscreen is real!). And there are other activities you can do indoors to keep them active and stimulated.

Read on how to keep your pets safe in the heat — and how to tell if they're not.

Watch out for hot pavement

Experts advise limiting walks to the cooler early morning or evening hours, in part because hot asphalt can put dogs at risk for burned paw pads.

Sy Woon, a Florida representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, recommends feeling the pavement with the back of your hand to see whether it's tolerable for dogs.

"We sometimes think that they can walk across any surface and fare well, but actually, they can be quite sensitive," she told NPR last summer.

Try to keep your pet on grass or at least avoid dark-colored pavement. Using dog booties can also help prevent accidental injury, San Filippo says.

Make sure to give your pet access to shade and cold water while outside. The Humane Society advises adding ice to water when possible, and says tree shade and tarps are ideal because they don't obstruct air flow.

"A doghouse does not provide relief from heat," it adds. "In fact, it makes it worse."

A man sits with his dog in the shade in an attempt to beat the heat in Los Angeles on Thursday.
Richard Vogel / AP
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AP
A man sits with his dog in the shade in an attempt to beat the heat in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Pets can get sunburns, too

Sunburn is another summer pet safety risk that many owners may not be aware of, San Filippo says.

All dogs and cats may be susceptible, he says, though those that are hairless, have white or thin coats or light-pigmented noses and eyelids are especially at risk.

"There are special sunscreens available to protect pets from sunburn," he writes. "It's very important that you only use formulas that are specifically intended as sunscreen for your type of pet."

And while the hot temperatures may scream summer haircut, San Filippo advises caution.

He says shaving breeds with a "double coat" (like golden retrievers, Pomeranians and huskies) is actually not recommended. Their coats provide protection from the elements, including heat, so shaving increases their chance of overheating and sunburn.

The AVMA recommends asking your vet whether your pet would benefit from a warm-weather haircut or sunscreen.

Fleas, ticks and other bugs are also more active in warmer weather, which San Filippo says is another reason to be careful.

"It's important that pet owners work with their veterinarians to develop a flea and tick prevention strategy, and also be aware of other critters in their area that may pose a risk to their pets," he adds.

Optimize your indoor spaces

Experts advise leaving your pet at home if you'll be out and about. And while they're indoors, there are things you can do to make your pet as comfortable as possible.

The American Red Cross recommends keeping all doors and unscreened windows closed, and securing screens tightly, to keep pets from getting out.

The AVMA recommends providing different "temperature zones" throughout the house for your pet's comfort. And the Humane Society notes that fans don't cool pets off as effectively as people, since they respond to heat in different ways.

Make sure to provide them with water, and consider whipping up pet-friendly "pupsicles" as a refreshing treat or buying a cooling body wrap, vest or mat.

And never leave your pet in a parked car, since temperatures can quickly rise to dangerous levels even in the shade or with the windows down.

On an 85-degree day, for instance, the temperature inside a car with the windows slightly open can reach 102 degrees within 10 minutes, and 120 degrees after half an hour — which can cause irreparable organ damage or death.

If you come across a dog in a parked car this summer, the Humane Society recommends asking any nearby businesses to make a loudspeaker announcement or, if the owner can't be found, calling the non-emergency number of the local police or animal control and waiting for them to arrive.

Man and man's best friend cool off in Miami, Florida last month.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Man and man's best friend cool off in Miami, Florida last month.

Keep them busy with other activities

Even if it's too hot for your pet's regular outdoor activities, it's still important that they get some kind of mental and physical stimulation to keep them happy and healthy, San Filippo says.

"While walks or trips to the dog park might be out of the question, there are some easy alternatives," he adds.

If you have a yard, consider setting up a kiddie pool in a shady spot or a sprinkler your pet can run through. He says you can also splash your dog with a garden hose — just make sure the water is cool and that they don't drink too much of it, which could cause vomiting.

You could also consider a doggy day care, which San Filippo says can provide "the same thrills and excitement as the dog park," just in an air-conditioned environment. Some facilities have outdoor spaces, so he recommends asking about their policies for hot days.

There are also plenty of indoor exercise and enrichment activities anyone can try at home, from hallway fetch to food puzzles.

You could hide treats or food around the house to let your pet practice their foraging skills, he says, as long as you help them out at first and adjust their meals to account for the calories. Or build your own obstacle course using pillows, boxes and other household items.

San Filippo says it's also a good time to teach your pet a new trick or brush up on some old ones.

"These activities are a great way to bond with your pet and learn more about what kinds of activities they're interested in or capable of," he says. "The more you play, the more you both will learn!"

Recognize the signs of heat stroke

If your pet has been out in extreme temperatures, make sure to watch for signs of heat stress or heat stroke.

Symptoms include anxiousness or restlessness, excessive drooling and panting (even when lying down), vomiting or diarrhea, abnormal gum and tongue color (like deep red or purple), unsteadiness or collapsing. Cats might also experience open-mouthed breathing.

If you suspect heat stroke, experts recommend taking your pet's temperature rectally.

Anything above 105 degrees means you need to cool the animal down (and stop when they reach 103 degrees), according to the Red Cross.

"If you see signs of heat stress in your pets, the best thing to do is get them into a cool, shady area and give them water to drink," San Filippo says.

You could also run cool hose water over them, apply ice packs or cold towels to their head, neck and chest and let them lick ice cubes.

But be careful — San Filippo says cooling a hyperthermic animal too quickly can cause their blood vessels to constrict, which will actually make it harder for them to get cool. That's why it's crucial to use cool water or wet towels, instead of cold ones, and fan your pet to help encourage evaporation.

Once you've taken immediate action, experts recommend bringing your pet to the vet as soon as possible — especially if their symptoms don't improve quickly.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.