Sunscreen, shade, and sunset walkies: Vets issue urgent heatwave advice as temperatures look poised to rival 2018 record

With extreme heat warnings in place across the UK, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) is urging pet owners to take extra precautions to keep their animals safe in hot weather. The advice follows concerns that cases of heat-related illness seen by vets this year could rival the significant numbers seen during the record-breaking summer of 2018 when almost two-thirds of vets reported treating animals affected by the hot weather.

BVA’s Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey in 2018 found that half of the vets had treated animals for heat stroke (51%) while more than one in three (36%) had seen animals requiring treatment for other conditions relating to hot weather, like breathing difficulties, heart conditions, burnt paw pads, and sunburn. Compared to 2015, the average number of cases of heatstroke and other heat-related conditions seen per vet that year had doubled and trebled, respectively.

Dogs may particularly struggle to stay cool in high temperatures and humid conditions since, unlike humans, they are unable to cool down quickly through sweating, making them vulnerable to overheating. Even a very short in the middle of the day or being locked in a car for a few minutes can prove to be fatal. Flat-faced breeds such as English or French bulldogs and pugs are at even greater risk, as their short muzzles can make breathing difficult, and therefore they struggle to cool down through panting, which is a dog’s main way to cool its body temperature. Overweight animals and densely coated animals are also at increased risk.

Like dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs cannot sweat or pant to regulate their body temperature and cool down, which is why it’s important that their hutch or run isn’t exposed to direct sunlight at any time of the day Flystrike is also a life-threatening risk for them in the warmer months, so daily inspection around their back end and under their tail is essential. Seek veterinary advice immediately if you see any maggots.

British Veterinary Association President Justine Shotton said:

“While most of us look forward to warmer weather, our pets can suffer in high temperatures and humid conditions. Each year, vets across the country report seeing large numbers of cases involving pets who require treatment for heat-related conditions, and this saw a noticeable jump during the record-breaking heat of 2018.

“Vets know that dogs, in particular, won’t stop enjoying themselves and exercising because it is hot, so it’s up to owners to do all they can to prevent overheating happening in this heatwave. This includes making sure pets aren’t walked or exercised in the middle of a hot day or left inside a hot car or conservatory for even a little while, as ‘not long’ can prove fatal.

“If you’re concerned about your pet in the hot weather, we’d recommend contacting your vet immediately.”

Some breeds of cats and dogs, particularly those with lighter-coloured or finer fur, may also benefit from appropriate sun cream, especially on the ear tips, which are prone to sunburn. In the case of chronic exposure, it can even lead to potentially dangerous skin cancers. Among dogs, breeds such as Dalmatians, Beagles, Whippets, white Boxers, and white English Bull Terriers are among the most commonly affected. Cats who like sunbathing on windowsills are also at risk of exposing themselves to a lot of sunlight through windows that are generally not UVA-protected. Blue-eyed white cats are most susceptible, as well as the white-haired skin areas of short-haired cats.

Dr. Shotton added:

“The best way to prevent sunburn is to avoid excessive sunlight exposure but, if that isn’t possible, you should apply pet-appropriate sunscreen 10-15 minutes before exposure. Products that are waterproof, with a high SPF (30 or higher), and containing titanium dioxide are suitable and should be applied as a thin smear.

“BVA recommends avoiding sunscreens with zinc oxide to avoid zinc toxicity. If pet-safe products are hard to find, hypoallergenic or baby human products may be suitable instead. It’s a good idea to consult a vet to make sure you are applying the right sunscreen correctly and in the right place.”

Vets’ top tips: 

  • Make sure all pets always have access to fresh water to drink, adequate ventilation, and shade from direct sunlight at all times. This includes birds in cages or aviaries and rabbits in hutches. Provide extra shade to guinea pigs by covering the top of wire mesh runs with damp towels.
  • Don’t exercise dogs in the hottest parts of the day: especially older dogs, overweight dogs, flat-faced breeds or dogs that you know have heart or lung problems. Stick to early morning or late evening walks.
  • Do the five-second tarmac test before taking a dog out for a walk; if it feels too hot for you, it’s too hot for your dog’s paws.
  • Never leave dogs in vehicles. If you see a dog in distress inside a hot car, call 999.
  • Watch out for early signs of heatstroke, such as heavy panting, drooling, restlessness, bright red or very pale gums, and lack of coordination. Signs of heatstroke in rabbits include drooling, salivating, lethargy, short and shallow breaths, red and warm ears, wet nose, and seizures.
  • If heatstroke or any other heat-related condition is suspected, take your pets to a cool, well-ventilated place, give them small amounts of cool (not ice-cold) water to drink, and pour room-temperature water over it to cool them down. Seek immediate advice from your vet.
  • Spare a thought for wild animals. Keep out bowls of water for wildlife such as birds and hedgehogs.

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