by Josh Spiert
Dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but dog lovers treat them all with the same compassion. The sun, unfortunately, is not so kind. It may send one dog to the door panting or leave another so scorched that it’s hot to the touch. Several factors determine a dog’s sensitivity to heat and the sun. These variables will decide to what degree a pooch will be praying for a pool party or a place in the shade. Everything from the size of the dog to the color and grooming style of its fur will make a definite difference in the dog days of summer.
A dog’s body size is very likely to determine how easily it will overheat. “Dogs build up heat as a function of volume and lose it as a function of surface area,” writes Caroline Coile, of Petside.com. “This means that larger dogs with rounder bodies have less surface area for their size, and build up heat faster.” A pocket-sized Pekingese will not suffer the same effects as quickly as a massive Bull Mastiff.
Another interesting note is that flat- or snub-nosed dog breeds tend to overheat easier and do not do well in hot weather. This includes breeds like Boxers, Pugs, and Bulldogs. Since dogs regulate body temperature partly through panting, those that do not breathe as well also do not regulate as well.
On one particular 85 degree sunny day here at Acme Canine, the doggie daycare group lounged in the facility’s side yard. The yard contains areas of both sun and shade. Most of the dogs smartly stayed in the shade. Our temporary resident dog Acme, an Old English Sheepdog, occasionally trotted back and forth from sunshine to tree cover. The first dog to eventually need shelter, however, was Dixon, a Bernese Mountain Dog. She informed the supervisor with her panting, while Acme was relaxing inside a plastic play house, sun relentlessly beating down (and as usual Spike, French Weiner and literal teacher’s pet, lay watching everyone, hoarding his ball and chewing on twigs in the corner by the fence).
Acme and Dixon are roughly the same size with medium-to-long fur (or hair in Acme’s case). Their major differences are revealed in their coat. Acme has grey and white curly hair, while Dixon has mostly brown and black fur. A dog with a darker coat will absorb heat much faster than one with a lighter coat.
Light-colored dogs are not out of the woods either. Though their coats may reflect more sunlight and heat than their dark-haired friends, they are more prone to sunburns and skin problems related to sun exposure. Fair-skinned dogs are just as susceptible to sun sensitivity and skin cancer as fair-skinned people are. “Cats, dogs, and horses that spend a lot of time in the sun and have a light colored coat or lacking the black pigment around the eyes, ears, and nose, can get sunburned,” writes Dr. Janet Tobiassen Crosby, a doctor of veterinary medicine who discusses animal safety issues. “Long term effects of sun exposure may include skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma.”
To combat these particular dangers, use sunscreen for fair-skinned and lightly-colored dogs. According to Dr. Julie Damron of the Sierra Veterinary Clinic, sunscreen like non-toxic Bullfrog can be used. Most sunscreen that uses titanium dioxide as the active ingredient can be used as well. To be certain, however, one can buy dog-specific sunscreen in most pet stores.
Dogs with undercoats, or a second layer underneath the top layer of fur, present another problem. Stylish summer shaves are popular among dog owners, but surprisingly this can be counterproductive. Dogs release most of their body heat from the lungs (panting), nose, and the pads of their paws. As a result, they do not need the shaved look to cool down. Cutting the fur too close to the skin can even increase the dangers. Undercoats provide insulation from both cold and heat. There will be less protection from the heat and, if the dog burns easily, it may take barrels of sunscreen to stay protected. More important to dogs with undercoats is proper brushing routines to keep the coat neat. Dogs with dark coats can usually get a trim, as long as it does not overexpose the skin underneath. Owners who have dogs with light coats should use extra caution when deciding on a grooming style. “If you do shave your pet, leaving at least one-fourth inch of coat will still help to reduce burns and tumors,” writes Dr. Damron.
For dogs that seem prone to heat or sun sensitivity, there are measures one can take in order to avoid harm in the hot months:
KEEP WATER AVAILABLE any time the dog is in the heat.
WATCH for signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Early signs include excessive panting, stumbling, rapid heart rate, and bluish coloring on the tongue.
USE SUNSCREEN to protect fair-skinned and light-coated dogs from burns that can lead to skin cancer and other maladies. Pet stores carry sunscreens specifically created for dogs that do not contain harmful or toxic ingredients.
DO NOT leave a dog exposed to the elements unattended for an extended period of time (this also includes the obvious “never leave a dog in a parked car” rule). If it is above 90 degrees, avoid leaving the dog outside for more than five minutes.
BE AWARE of the dog’s vulnerabilities. This rule could even encompass all the others. If the dog is fair-skinned, use sunscreen or t-shirts to protect it. If it is dark, do not leave it in the heat and sun as long as you may leave other dogs. Do not walk a dog on black pavement that may feel scalding on its pads. This basically means to simply use common sense and be mindful that dogs feel the impact of heat and the sun even more intensely than people do. React to behavior quickly and responsibly and the dog will stay healthy, happy, and cool.