It's hot. It's sticky. Stepping outdoors is like a sucker punch to the gut. Now, imagine going outside while wearing a fur coat.
Our furry friends seem to exhibit Zen-like calm when facing summer temperatures, but the truth is there are several seasonal problems that can affect pets. Dr. Paul Koenig of Elysian Fields Animal Clinic and Dr. Mary Brewington of Metairie Small Animal Hospital explain a few summer health issues, their causes and treatments. These health concerns aren't exclusive to summer, but extra diligence is needed as the mercury climbs.
Allergies are more likely to crop up in warmer months because "the heat and the growing season of pollens and grasses can lead to itching and allergic skin disease," Koenig says. Kennel cough is another common ailment, not because of weather, but because families travel more in the summer and may board pets. There's a vaccine for this; typically, it's administered during your pet's annual wellness visit.
Hot asphalt can burn Fido or Fifi's paw pads. Brewington suggests walking pets or letting them outside only during the cooler hours of the day, and offers a general rule of thumb for heat exposure: "If it's too hot out for you, it's too hot out for them," she says. Make sure pets have access to plenty of fresh water, especially outdoor animals.
"Coughing, especially in the heat and especially with overweight, small dogs can be a sign of ... overheating, as is panting," Koenig says. "The blood vessels under a pet's tongue will get enlarged and turn purple. These can also be signs of tracheal collapse or heart failure."
Extreme heat can cause heatstroke, and dogs with short snouts (such as bulldogs and pugs) and pre-existing breathing problems are more susceptible to it. It can happen quickly to pets left in vehicles; Prevention magazine reports the temperature inside a car can increase by as much as 19 degrees in as little as 7 minutes.
"Just don't do it," Koenig says. "I don't think there's any reason to ever try to get by with leaving your animals in the car. It's too dangerous."
Fleas (and other bugs) mature more quickly in warmer months because of the heat and humidity. Summer conditions can trigger fleas to emerge from their adolescent cocoons sooner and become biting, reproducing adults. Many fleas are species-specific, only feeding on a single animal species, but the fleas in Louisiana are less discerning. Cat fleas are most common, but they will infest dogs and cats alike. Exotic pets such as ferrets and gerbils also are susceptible to fleas.
"We have cat fleas here — it's too hot for dog fleas," Koenig says. "They won't bite humans unless you're overrun with them, so pet owners won't know (there's an infestation) unless they check their pets' skin."
Fleas only spend about one-fourth of their life cycle on their hosts, so it's important to treat not only your pet but the pet's living area for fleas. Scratching is the most overt sign of a flea incursion, but pets also can develop allergic reactions, contract flea-borne diseases such as roundworm and hookworm and even become anemic from blood loss. An influx of fleas should be treated aggressively, and Koenig says it's easier now than ever.
"The flea medicines that we use now are so much more effective than they have ever been," he says. Some of these medications and sprays even protect against ticks.
Koenig sees very few tick bites in city pets, but deer ticks are common in Louisiana's wooded areas. These ticks bite humans and their furry friends with equal zeal, and infect them with diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. Both are bacterial infections whose primary symptoms in pets are high fever, swelling of the joints and lameness; Rocky Mountain spotted fever also causes skin discoloration. Both are more likely to affect dogs than cats, and humans can get them too.
Heartworms are another bug-borne pest that affects dogs in particular, especially in the warmer months. Transmitted by bites from a summer-swollen population of mosquitoes carrying microfilariae (heartworm offspring), heartworms mature and breed in the blood vessels near an animals' vital organs, causing damage or organ failure and obstructing blood flow. Symptoms are coughing and wheezing, trouble breathing and reduced energy.
The best treatment for heartworms is prevention. A veterinarian can prescribe a monthly oral medication that is easier to administer and significantly cheaper than the drugs used to treat heartworms. Koenig stresses that dogs need the medication monthly, not only in summer. Cats can contract the disease, but since it is less common there is no approved drug treatment. Prevention is the only option.
"People think that because their cats stay inside, they're safe from heartworms," Brewington says. "But it's transmitted by mosquitoes — I got bitten by three mosquitoes in my house just last night. Cats (and dogs) need to be on heartworm prevention year-round because we have mosquitoes year-round."
Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection, is common during the summer because contamination usually comes from contact with stagnant water polluted with the bacteria. It's also passed via the urine of an infected animal, and is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted between pets and humans. Koenig says half of all cases have no known exposure, so make sure pets aren't drinking standing water in the backyard. That neighbor with the chickens? Bird feed attracts rodents, which also are harbingers of the bacteria.
Symptoms are fever, muscle pain and dehydration, and if untreated can progress to bleeding disorders and kidney and liver complications. There's a canine vaccine for leptospirosis; cats are resistant to infection and aren't vaccinated.
Canine influenza has been reported in Louisiana, although there currently are no confirmed cases in the New Orleans area. Symptoms are coughing, sneezing and eye or nasal discharge. Brewington says dogs spend more time with other dogs in summer — boarding, playing in dog parks — so the flu can spread quickly. She recommends vaccination as part of a pet's annual health screening.
"It is very contagious," she says. "Some animals may not exhibit symptoms but can still carry the virus."
There are more than a few curve balls summer weather can throw at us (thunderstorms and street flooding included), but with preventive care such as regular exams and vaccinations, a lot of risks to pets can be eliminated.
"This is basic care," Koenig says. "Everyone who wants to have a pet needs to try to provide that. Half of the problems that can possibly arise with a pet won't happen if you take preventive measures."