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How to protect your pets against summer heat

For humans, the summer means days at the pool, trips for ice cream and snow cones, and spending long hours outdoors. But for household pets, summertime can be more dangerous than enjoyable. As the summer heats up, veterinarians offer advice for pet owners as to how they can best protect their pets against climbing temperatures.

The following are a few tips given by veterinarians. For specific care and health questions, consult a veterinarian.

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Don't leave your animals in the car

"Probably my first, most important tip that I give everyone is to leave [your pets] at home … don't keep them locked in your car, even with the windows down or cracked," said Amanda Serafini, veterinary training and behavioral director at the Baltimore Humane Society, in Reisterstown. "The temperature inside a car can reach triple digits within minutes, even on a mild 75-degree day."

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Mary Zink, director of veterinary services with the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said holding off on car trips is important in late spring and early fall.

"You never know if you're going to have an emergency where you're going to have to get out of the car and leave them in there for just a few minutes — that's what they always think, that it's just a few minutes," she said.

Limit outdoor activity

In times of extreme heat, it's important to make sure dogs and cats are given shade and are not allowed to remain outdoors for long periods of time, veterinarians say.

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"If they're outside they need adequate shade; they shouldn't be exercised during the hot, humid times of the day and even during the evening if it's really hot," Zink said.

Though Zink said owners should start watching their pets more closely and be more careful with them in temperatures above 80 degrees, she also said it's important to keep the effects of humidity in mind.

"The temperature will be one thing but the heat index will be another … [pet owners should] realize that that will affect the dog, too," she said.

However, she also advised that instead of judging a pet's well-being based upon a specific temperature, owners should use their animal's behavior as a more accurate gauge.

"It has to do with how is your pet tolerating the heat and is it too hot for your pet?" Zink said.

Serafini said owners should keep longer walks restricted to early morning or late evening when the temperature is cooler. She also said she advises people to press their hands to the pavement to check how hot it will be for their dogs' paws. If the owner can't hold his or her hand on the pavement for three seconds, it's too hot for a dog to walk on.

Cats are more in tune with how they are feeling in the heat, Zink said, but dogs don't have that ability. Cats are more likely to seek out shaded areas than their canine counterparts, she said, so it's important to monitor dogs a bit more closely. However, both dogs and cats should have limited outdoor exposure during the summer. For dogs, Zink said outdoor activity should be limited to bathroom use only. If you see outdoor cats, Serafini said, you should "make sure they have shade and plenty of water."

Serafini said "keeping [animals] well hydrated [and] making sure they have plenty of water accessible to them" is extremely important during the summer.

Watch for signs of heat exhaustion

If dogs have heat exhaustion, they might "appear distressed, they'll have a frantic look in their eye, they'll be panting heavily and appear kind of restless. Cats usually just will pant," Zink said.

Serafini said symptoms can also include "lethargy, obviously an elevated body temperature; there can be vomiting, diarrhea, things like that, especially if it's following being outside for a longer period of time."

Zink said symptoms of heat exhaustion in both dogs and cats can very quickly evolve into heat stroke, which can be fatal.

"The next step is they will drool a lot," she said. "The next step is they become unsteady on their feet. And their gums turn from a bright red, they can then start to turn blue or purple because they're not getting enough oxygen. And when that starts to happen, that's a serious emergency because the next step is their organs shut down."

While all dogs' outdoor activity should be limited during the summer, veterinarians say there are certain breeds that are more susceptible to heat exhaustion.

"Brachycephalic breeds — just examples would be English bulldogs, pugs, French bulldogs, Boston terriers. Because of their shortened muzzle they are less tolerant of heat because they cannot oxygenate their bodies as well as a regular-type muzzled dog," Serafini said.

If you suspect your dog or cat has heat exhaustion, it's important to cool them down before the condition worsens.

"Usually what you want to do is cool them down but not too quickly. You want to run cool water over them if you're noticing those early signs. If you're noticing those late signs you can do that but you need to get them into the vet pretty immediately," Zink said.

Check under your car

While it's important to make sure your car is in working condition during the summer, this is actually a safety tip for cats.

"Before you get in your car if you know there are outdoor cats in your neighborhood, check underneath your car," Serafini said.

Oftentimes, cats will lay under cars for protection against the heat of the sun.

"They're just trying to find shady spots and they might be sleeping under there and if you jump in your car and try to leave you might catch them by surprise — run over them," Zink said.

Don't shave your dogs

When most dog owners look at their pooches during the summer, they imagine them sweating mercilessly under their long coats of hair. But veterinarians say it's important to resist the urge to shave them.

"I think one of the most common misconceptions [of summer pet care] is since the dogs have fur that it's a good idea when it gets warm to shave them down completely," Serafini said. "That's actually the opposite of what you want to do."

Serafini said dogs' coats act as natural insulators and are designed to "keep their bodies cool."

Rather than shaving your dog's hair, keep it clean instead, Serafini said.

"You want to keep their coat natural, but of course you also want to make sure you're brushing them regularly … whatever their coat naturally is, just keep their coat at their regular length and brushed, so make sure that their coat is clean," Serafini said.

Shaving dogs might cause more harm than good, Zink said.

"Their hair is that length for a reason and just shaving it doesn't necessarily make them less susceptible to heat problems, then the heat can bear right down on their skin and sometimes they can get sunburn," she said. "The answer's not shaving their hair; it's keeping them in a cool environment."

At the end of the day, veterinarians say staying attentive to your pet's needs and overall surroundings will help ensure they stay healthy and safe during the summer heat.

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"You got to look at what your dog's doing," Zink said. "If it's too hot for us, it's too hot for them. If you wouldn't sit out in it, your dog shouldn't sit out in it."

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