Record-setting heat and extreme weather events spurred by climate change affects the animals closest to us. Pet cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents and other small mammals, reptiles, and birds all experience and exhibit signs of overheating in different ways than we do.
Here’s what you need to know about how your pets try to cope with heat—and how to help them.
How do pets cool down? Pet owners “sometimes judge heat by how they feel, and that’s not what we need to do,” says Barbara Hodges, a veterinarian and director of advocacy and outreach for the Humane Society Veterinary Medicine Association, located in Davis, California. A perfect example, she says, is that “people always forget how hot asphalt is,” because we never have to touch it. “You drive somewhere [with your dog] and think, Oh, I’ll just run across the parking lot into the clinic, not realizing that it would really hurt if you don’t have shoes on.”
Animals physiologically deal with heat differently than humans do. To regulate body temperature, we sweat through our skin, head to toe, and the sweat evaporates, cooling our bodies.
Dogs and cats sweat only through their paws and noses; rabbits and birds don’t sweat at all. Dogs rely on panting as their primary way of cooling down—it allows water to evaporate across their lungs, tongues, and moist surfaces of the mouth. Cats typically groom their fur to keep cool; the saliva evaporates off their fur.
While it may be tempting to shave your furry pet in the summer to help them stay cool, don’t do it, says José Arce, veterinarian and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It may seem counterintuitive, but fur acts as an insulator; it helps keep animals warm in winter and cool in summer, “like roofs of houses with layers of insulation,” Arce says. Plus, it protects them from sunburn, something they’re as susceptible to as humans.
While pets have adaptations to deal with normal summers, they “don’t cope with extreme heat,” says Hodges.
Extreme heat “can overwhelm an animal’s thermoregulation, preventing them from shedding that excess heat and eventually leading to heatstroke, which can be fatal,” Arce says.
Never leave your pet in a closed car unattended under any circumstance, Arce says. If the outside air is 80 degrees (26°C), the temperature in a closed car will hit 100 degrees (37.7°C) in about 10 minutes.
Even normal activities can lead to heat stroke when temperatures are extreme. “It used to be OK to leave a dog in the backyard for a couple hours on summer day,” Hodges says, but with rising temperatures triggered by climate change and frequent heat waves, it’s important to be more vigilant. (Excerpt from ‘How extreme heat affects our pets—and how to help them’, nationalgeographic.com, 2023)
What can extreme heat lead to in animals?