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The dog days of summer

Posted: August 29th, 2014 | Featured, Pets | No Comments

Tips for weathering the summer months with your furry companion

Ann Eliopulos

Expecting overcast mornings? Rain? Hold your horses. I’d like to think that the summer heat is behind us, but after only two years here in San Diego, I know that the worst is yet to come. We have just entered that period of the year known as the “dog days of summer,” and beating the heat will be the name of the game through September. 

Sirius, aka the “Dog Star,” is the brightest star visible from earth and is part of the constellation known as Canis Major, the “Big Dog.” As a nerd and little girl at heart, I love being able to spot Sirius in the sky — the way it sparkles. It’s like the big bling in the night sky. This part of the summer, you can see it in the east in the early morning, near the sun. In ancient times, the brightness of this star, and its proximity to the sun in the late summer, was thought to create an additive effect on the heat, creating sweltering conditions — hence the term, “dog days.”

Going to the beach is a blast for dogs that like the water, sand, sun and the company of other dogs. Watching canines of all sizes run around together is relaxing and enjoyable, until I see them slurping a bunch of salt water, over and over. Drinking large amounts of salt water can be deadly, and most dogs don’t pay attention to the taste of the salt. They just know they are thirsty and keep drinking, but sodium (the main ingredient in salt) gets absorbed very quickly and raises the blood sodium levels.

The first symptoms of salt toxicity are vomiting and diarrhea. If a lot of salt water has been consumed, these symptoms can progress to ataxia (drunken, uncoordinated walking), disorientation, depression, seizures and ultimately death from severe brain swelling. Always bring fresh water with you and give your dog lots of water breaks. If you notice any symptoms that may seem like salt toxicity, get them to a veterinary emergency facility immediately.

Blue-green algae blooms, or cyanobacteria, can occur in both salt and fresh water during hot, windy periods. These blooms can cause a “pea soup” appearance, with thick layers of algae on the surface of the water. Ingestion of this type of algae can cause severe liver or neurological damage. It’s also toxic to cats, dogs and birds alike. If you notice green algae on the surface of the pond, lake or beach, keep your pet away from it.

Overheating can happen even at the beach, especially to the flat-faced breeds. Dogs can only sweat from the pads of their feet, meaning they cannot cool themselves efficiently, hence the panting. By breathing rapidly with their mouths open, they are creating a mini-evaporative cooler of sorts. They rely on the evaporation of the moisture in their mouth, along with the quick movement of air, to cool their bodies off. It’s terribly ineffective in really hot weather or with exercise, and you can see why, with the non-existent muzzles of the flat-faced dogs, they are even less efficient with panting as a cooling mechanism. There just isn’t much space to move air and evaporate moisture from it.

I know you all have heard it before, but let me say it again, because every year I see multiple dogs coming in dying of heatstroke or overheating. Do not leave your dog in the car on hot days. Do not exercise them in the heat of the day. If you have a flat-faced dog, wait until early morning or after dark to exercise them. If your apartment is hot, get some fans to help cool it down.

If you have to walk your dog when it’s hot, pay attention to how hot the asphalt or sidewalks are. If you’re not sure, put the palm of your hand down and check. If it’s too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for your dog’s feet, other than for the quickest of potty breaks. If you insist on walking your dog when it’s hot, get them some booties. Burned feet hurt, no matter what species you are.

With the farm-to-table food movement upon us, something I’ve been involved with my whole adult life, more and more people are doing home gardening and composting. For some dogs, few things are more enticing than decomposing, stinky piles of just about anything. Unfortunately, a very nasty by-product called “tremorgenic mycotoxins” can develop into moldy organic matter, and, as you may have guessed, can be toxic to your dog.

Dogs who ingest mycotoxins may develop either fine or severe muscle tremors, agitation, elevated heart rate, hyperthermia (high body temperature), seizures and even death. The effects of these toxins can last from hours to days. I encourage and support composting, recycling and sustainable practices, but know that your compost pile can be a serious threat if not contained or cordoned off properly.

I love having my dogs with me for everything, but during this time of year, it often makes more sense for them to be at home in the air conditioning. Hot fun in the summertime can be just that with some caution and care. Enjoy the dog days, for they herald the coming of fall.

—Ann Eliopulos is the DVM at Bodhi Animal Hospital in North Park.

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