Sunscreen, check. Plenty of fresh water, check. Swimming lessons, check. Flea control, check.
Flea control? This list isn’t for you or your kids — it’s for your pets. Summertime brings picnics, fun in the sun, and swimming in pools or open water — good times that are tarnished only by stinging or biting insects, heatstroke, sunburn, skin problems and water hazards, to name the most common summer-related dangers that face dogs and cats.
Here’s what you need to know to recognize and prevent problems:
Itchy and scratchy
When the weather turns warm, fleas hatch and animals get itchy. “We see this manifest itself as sores and scabs on dogs and cats,” says Susan McClung Davis, a veterinarian at Aliso Beach Animal Clinic in Laguna Beach, Calif. “Many animals are allergic to fleas, and all it takes is one flea for them to bite and scratch themselves raw.”
Bees, wasps, fire ants and mosquitoes are other painful pests of summer. Dogs or cats that take a curious or aggressive interest in bees or wasps are likely to receive payback in the form of a sting on the nose or head.
Fire ants often march onto the abdomen of a pet lying outdoors enjoying the sun, then sting in synchrony, which is a very painful experience. If your pet is being stung by fire ants, hose them off and get your pet to the veterinarian, says Michael Schaer, a professor and associate chair at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.
Reactions to insect bites and stings range from slight swelling and pain to anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe allergic reaction that can be fatal if not treated immediately. Mosquito bites don’t provoke a skin reaction, but they can transmit potentially fatal heartworm disease.
“If your pet is stung, seek veterinary help right away,” Davis says.
Prevention goes a long way. “Fleas and ticks are easily controlled on pets with topical medications," she says. "Placing a product on the skin can kill fleas and ticks for as long as a month. The best way to prevent heartworm disease is by giving a heartworm preventive pill orally once a month.”
While some flea-control medications repel mosquitoes, it’s important to remember that they don’t prevent heartworm disease if a mosquito does bite your pet.
Keep them cool
Heat and humidity affect pets as well, especially those that are brachycephalic, or flat-faced, such as Pugs, Pekingese and Persians, or those that have very heavy coats.
High temperatures can lead to heat exhaustion or the more dangerous heatstroke. Animals that are outside or enclosed in cars are most at risk of heatstroke, Davis says.
Signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke include panting excessively, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and loss of consciousness.
Cool a pet with heat exhaustion by pouring water on the coat and working it into the hair. Loss of consciousness is an emergency situation and requires immediate veterinary care.
One of the most important precautions for preventing both conditions is to never leave your pet in a car during warm months.
“You can have the inside of a car heat up to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 10 minutes,” Schaer says. “We’re not even talking about a quick run into the drugstore with the animal in a closed car. You don’t want to do that.”
If there’s absolutely no way around it, park the car in the shade with the windows down, and make sure your pet has access to water, Davis says.
Does your dog love swimming in the pool or riding on the family boat? Be sure he knows how to get out of the pool or onto the boat. Problems occur when pets fall into pools or off boats and panic.
“Take your dog into the pool and show him how to find the stairs and climb out,” Davis says. “Then put him into the pool and see if he can get out on his own. Repeat this until he can consistently get out of the pool on his own. If you have a boat, put the dog in the water next to the boat and then ‘rescue’ him. This way he’ll be prepared if he falls off the boat unexpectedly.”
You may also want to consider purchasing a product such as a Skamper-Ramp, which can be used in pools and on boats to help the animal get out of the water.
“Skamper-Ramp works because all living creatures see white,” says the company’s marketing director, Carrie Agnew. “They see the ramp because it angles down, breaking the surface of the water and placing it at eye level to them.”
Of course, not even a Skamper-Ramp will help if your pet can’t see. “Pools are especially hazardous for blind dogs,” Davis says. “If they fall in, they cannot get out. It is important to not let your blind dog go anywhere near swimming pools.”
Wave-riding dogs — whether they're body surfing for the joy of it or chasing after toys their owners throw into the surf — face other water hazards, she adds. “They can injure their legs, especially their knees. The jarring force of the waves is hard on the ligaments. Also, dogs will occasionally drink sea water. This can be poisonous or even fatal.”
Finally, don’t forget to apply sunscreen when your pet goes outdoors.
Yes, dogs and cats are susceptible to sunburn, especially if they have thin or light-colored coats, and cats that get sunburned are more likely to develop skin cancer.
Dogs that lie on their backs enjoying the sun have gotten painful sunburns on their abdomens, Schaer says, but the areas most prone to sunburn on dogs and cats are the nose, face and ear tips — so cover them with sunscreen. Also be sure to cover the bodies of hairless pets and those with thin coats such as Whippets and Pugs.
You can find sunscreen made for pets at pet supply stores, or you can apply zinc oxide or PABA-free sunscreen. Be careful not to get it in your pet’s eyes.
Now that you’re prepared, enjoy the dog (and cat) days of summer.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.