Here in sunny California, we’re accustomed to a hearty dose of vitamin C. But, our pets don’t always share the thrill we get from basking in the summer sun—perhaps because they realize that the warm weather can lead to serious heat-related injuries, including dehydration, paw pad burns, heat exhaustion, and life-threatening heatstroke.

Every summer, the South Shores Pet Clinic team cares for numerous overheated pets with various illness effects and emergency levels. To reduce that number, we answer the most common owner questions about pet heat safety.

Question: What role does panting play in my pet’s ability to stay cool?

Answer: Like humans, pets rely on evaporative cooling to regulate their body temperature, But unlike humans, they pant rather than sweat. Under normal circumstances, panting is incredibly effective for dissipating heat, because blood in the superficial mucous membrane vessels (i.e., gums, tongue, nasal passages) is cooled and recirculated into the body’s core, as hot air inside the lungs is exhaled and exchanged for cool external air.

Unfortunately, intense or continuous panting can deplete the pet’s energy and consume significant water, and leave pets exhausted and dehydrated. In addition, panting’s efficacy is diminished if the surrounding is hot and humid. These factors can lead to heat-related emergencies in pets.

Q: What is heatstroke in pets?

A: Heatstroke (i.e., hyperthermia) is a life-threatening emergency that occurs when the pet’s internal temperature exceeds the normal range (i.e., 100 to 102.2 degrees). During heatstroke, the pet can no longer self-cool and their temperature escalates rapidly, causing visible distress and illness. Untreated pets can suffer irreversible organ damage if temperatures reach unsustainable levels (i.e., 104 to 107 degrees). Rapid intervention and treatment are critical to ensure recovery and minimize permanent injury.

Q: How can I tell if my pet is experiencing heat distress?

A: Heat-related distress can progress rapidly to life-threatening heatstroke, so early recognition and intervention are crucial to protect your pet. 

Mildly affected pets may show general discomfort, including:

  • Excessive panting
  • Unusual drooling
  • Restlessness or pacing
  • Fatigue or lethargy
  • Mental dullness (i.e., brain fog or failure to respond to their name or commands)

Pets experiencing mild signs should be taken to a cool location, offered lukewarm water to drink, and wetted down with cool—never cold—water.  If the pet does not improve, contact South Shores Pet Clinic.

Progressive or mid-stage heatstroke merits immediate veterinary attention. Visible illness signs include:

  • Vomiting with or without blood
  • Diarrhea with or without blood
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination (i.e., stumbling gait)
  • Unusual gum color (e.g., blue, purple, or grey)

Emergent pets, who include those in active distress or losing consciousness, require immediate and aggressive life-saving veterinary intervention. They may present:

  • Seizing
  • Unresponsive
  • Comatose or unconscious

Q: Why is leaving a pet in a parked car with the windows cracked dangerous?

A: Every summer, countless pets experience heat-related emergencies after being left unattended in parked vehicles. The car’s glass windows and metal body create a greenhouse-like effect in which interior temperatures rapidly increase and reach dangerous levels because the ventilation is inadequate.

Trapped pets become increasingly uncomfortable, agitated, and panicked when they cannot cool themselves or escape from the car. Sadly, many pets perish before their owners’ return.

This is an entirely preventable tragedy, and the South Shores Pet Clinic team urges you to never leave your pet in a parked car for any reason, for any length of time. If you cannot take them with you when you reach your destination, leave them at home.

Q: Are ice cubes safe for dogs?

A:  Ice cubes are a cool way to increase your dog’s water intake and are generally safe in moderation, but they can be risky. Problems that owners should watch for include:

  • Broken teeth — Dogs can chip their teeth while crunching on ice cubes, so monitor your dog’s behavior and frequently inspect their mouth for injury.
  • Enamel wear — Frequent chewing on hard ice cubes  wears away the tooth’s protective enamel  layer and can expose your dog’s teeth to pain and disease.
  • Choking — Eager dogs can choke on large ice cubes. If your dog is an overzealous eater or frequently coughs on ice, try crushed ice or pellet-shaped ice cubes.

Q: How can I keep my pet safe and comfortable outdoors?

A: Despite heat-related risks, you can safely share many summer activities with your pet. Simply monitor your pet’s behavior and comfort, and take extra precautions, including: 

  • Providing hydration and shade — Ensure your pet has unlimited access to cool fresh water and can get out of the sun.
  • Avoiding midday sun — Morning and evening activities when temperatures are lower are best.
  • Checking surface temperatures — Prevent paw pad burns by checking road and walkway temperatures before exercising your dog. If you can’t comfortably hold your hand on a surface for five seconds, stick to the grass or gravel or shaded walkways.
  • Taking frequent breaks — Pets don’t always know when to quit, so advocate for your dog or cat and break frequently to hydrate, cool off, and rest.

Heat safety doesn’t mean you need to cancel your summer plans with your pet, but you do need to pay close attention to their needs and stay aware of changing conditions. For additional tips on helping your pet beat the heat, or if you think your dog may be heat-stressed, contact South Shores Pet Clinic.