Summertime on Martha’s Vineyard: don’t bake pets


I had every intention of writing about Hubert, the itchy guinea pig, this week…. until I went up to Menemsha with a friend. As we munched our fried zucchini from The Bite and walked toward the beach, there he was. A big dog closed in a car with the windows cracked a few inches. Granted it was early evening and the blazing midday heat was passing, but it was still hot. Granted the dog, who looked like an Old English Sheepdog, had his hair clipped short for the summer, but he was still wearing a full fur coat.

I paused by the car. The dog barked. He looked fine. He wasn’t drooling or panting excessively. Maybe the owners had just run into the fish market and would be back momentarily. Surely no one would be foolish enough to leave a dog in the car for more than a few minutes in July, even after five.

Every year I write about heat stroke, yet every year I see case after case of seriously overheated pooches. Remember, dogs do not perspire. The only way they have to cool themselves is to pant. Overweight dogs, those with heavy coats, and smoosh-faced breeds (like bulldogs and pugs) are particularly at risk, as are older dogs and those with chronic cardiac problems, lung disease, or laryngeal paralysis. But even a young dog can succumb quickly in this kind of weather.

The first signs of heat stroke in the dog are panting and salivation, but since dogs pant and drool normally, it’s easy to overlook the onset of hyperthermia until it suddenly becomes severe. And it can progress incredibly fast. As the internal body temperature rises, the heart starts to beat rapidly. Bloody vomiting and diarrhea may occur, at which point even the least observant owner knows something is wrong. Cardiac arrhythmias and difficulty breathing may ensue. Left untreated, the dog will finally exhibit some combination of shock, seizures, coma, respiratory arrest, and death.

A few days later, I was out on errands when I happened upon another potential heat-stroke situation. In this case, the dog was tied in the back of a pickup truck. Here’s a brief aside. If you have to tie your dog in the back of an open vehicle, please, please, please, be absolutely sure there is no way he can fall out and hang himself. It happens. Really. Don’t think an extra long rope solves the problem. Dogs get tangled up to the point of shortening the rope and still strangle. Dogs also fall out while people are driving and get dragged. You’d think you would notice, but sometimes you don’t, until it’s too late. Really. It happens.

But back to our dog in the parking lot. I’m sure the owner thought the dog would be fine, because he wasn’t closed in the car, he was out in the open. But he was a black dog. The color black soaks up that heat. And there was no shade.

Then there was Sweetheart, a beloved indoor kitty. Like a lot of cats that do not go outside, Sweetie doesn’t get much exercise and, as a result, is seriously overweight, tipping the scales at 20 pounds. Now, heat stroke is fairly uncommon in cats. They are generally smart enough not to play ball when it’s 90 degrees outside. They don’t go to the beach. No one takes them for car rides or on bike trips. (Well, there is that guy I’ve seen cycling around with his cat on his shoulders, but that’s another column.)

What cats will do is curl up in a sunny spot for a snooze. That’s what Sweetheart did. She went into a deep sleep in a warm room, in a sunny spot, encased in a heavy layer of fat. Extra fat makes it harder for a body to dissipate excess heat and keep core temperature down. By the time Sweetie woke up, she was already too hot for her body to handle. She walked across the room and collapsed. Arriving at my office, her temperature was a whopping 106 degrees.

The first thing to do in a case of veterinary heat stroke is to wet the animal down thoroughly. It’s not enough to just wet the fur, you have to make sure you are really soaking the pet all the way down to the skin. This is particularly important with dogs with heavy coats. Concentrate on the areas with the least fur, like the belly and groin. Do not use ice or ice water. This is too cold and actually counterproductive, constricting peripheral blood vessels and reducing the release of heat from inside the body. Just keep hosing the animal down.

Put on the AC. Get a fan blowing. Then call your veterinarian. Severe heat stroke can cause organ damage, particularly kidney failure, swelling of the brain, and clotting disorders. Intravenous fluids and other medications may be warranted for the optimum prognosis.

Sweetie recovered uneventfully. Her owners have her on a diet and are keeping the air conditioning turned up for her on those really hot days. The dog in the pickup? I soon spotted his owner heading back to the truck, and the dog in Menemsha was gone when I went back to check on him. But not every situation ends so happily.

I, myself, had a case of heat exhaustion this summer, just sitting in a chair in the shade on a hot day. It is amazing how quickly it comes on, and how rapidly one can feel incapacitated.

We humans, we can talk. We can say “Wow, it’s hot. I need to get out of the sun.” We can turn on the AC, hop in the shower, jump in the ocean. But a dog in a closed car can’t do any of these things, and I have seen animals die because of their owner’s ignorance.

Please. Keep your pets out of harm’s way this summer. It’s hotter in that car than you think.