8 Summer First Aid Tips for Pets
By Paula Fitzsimmons
Warmer weather, cookouts, time by the water—the joys of summer that many of us cherish can sometimes be dangerous for our pets.
Cats and dogs are prone to a number of injuries and illnesses when temps rise. “Some of the most common include high-rise falls, increased dog bites, heatstroke, paw pad burns, disease from flea and tick activity, drowning, digestive upset, food obstruction, and getting hit by cars,” says Dr. Jason Nicholas, chief medical officer at Preventive Vet.
The good news is that emergencies are often preventable, says Dr. Christine Rutter, a board-certified emergency veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University in College Station. “Accompanying your pet outside, keeping your pet on a leash or supervised, and being mindful of hazards in the area are key.”
This is also a good time to invest in a pet first aid kit, get familiar with your veterinarian’s summer hours, and consider taking pet first aid classes.
Do you know what to do if your dog suffers heatstroke, or if your cat falls from your balcony? Here are eight of the most common summertime pet emergencies, along with first aid and prevention tips.
Treat for Heat
You already know leaving an animal in a hot, parked car can be deadly. “Conditions can become dangerous in as little as 15 minutes, even with the windows partially rolled down,” Rutter says. Put into perspective, “It’s like putting on a heavy coat in the summertime and sitting in a hot car for 15 minutes,” explains Camy Thumwood, creator of the Pet Alert Emergency Information System.
Pets can suffer heatstroke in open spaces, too—even when the pet parent happens to be an experienced veterinarian. “I once accidentally heat-stroked my own dog (an enthusiastic tennis ball chaser) on a humid 75-degree day,” Rutter says.
Look for symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, panting, fast pulse rate, red gums, and collapse, says Dr. Debbie Mandell, a board-certified emergency veterinarian and pet safety advisor for the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.
When this happens, animals need prompt treatment, Nicholas says. “Get the pet to a cooler place, and begin actively cooling them (with water) if the rectal temperature is over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Stop once the temperature is below 103.5.” (Do not submerge an overheated animal into an ice bath, as it can slow down cooling.) Then, get your dog to a vet, even if he appears fine. “Heatstroke can cause major problems throughout the body, including organ dysfunction,” says Dr. Steve Friedenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine.
Keep pets indoors as much as possible when it’s over 75 to 80 degrees. When outdoors, they should have access to cool water, shade, and, if possible, air conditioning, Rutter says. Some animals need extra consideration. “Juveniles, geriatrics, pets with short noses like Bulldogs and Boston Terriers, and pets with underlying diseases are less tolerant of heat and humidity,” she says.
The same precautions should be taken if your pet has been sedentary all winter, advises Dr. April Blong, assistant professor of emergency and critical care at Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State University. “Keep the first warm weather session at 20 to 30 minutes and take cues from your pet. If they start falling behind, are panting very heavily, or stop panting, discontinue the activity and allow them to rest,” Blong says. “From there, you can gradually increase the duration and intensity of activity. Try to exercise your pet first thing in the morning when it’s cooler and less humid. Evenings are a second choice.”
Protect Against Pests
Pets are more vulnerable to certain parasites in summer months. “Tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease are transmitted when dogs have access to standing water in wooded areas,” says Friedenberg, a board-certified emergency veterinarian. Getting your dog vaccinated is the key to prevention, especially if you live in a high-risk area.
Flea and tick protection is also essential, but choose a treatment that’s appropriate for your pet. Never use products intended for dogs on cats, as it could be toxic. “Use a cat-only product and talk to your veterinarian about which product they recommend since cats are very sensitive to them,” says Mandell, who helped develop a pet first aid app for the American Red Cross.
And if your pet does get bit, Mandell advises talking to your vet about antihistamines or other medications to help with the itchiness.
“You should also be going for heartworm protection,” Nicholas says. Mosquitoes are not only annoying but can spread a parasitic worm to your pet when they bite.
When Your Companion Gets Bit
Rutter sees cases of snake bites and stings on a daily basis. If your best friend gets bit by any animal, you can try putting an E-collar or wrap around him to prevent further damage, she says. But he needs to be evaluated by a vet immediately, even if the bite seems minor. “The majority of injury is below the surface, so they’re often significantly worse than they look on the surface,” Rutter warns.
Avoid applying topical treatments for bites, she adds. “I don’t recommend putting ointments, salves, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or water on wounds.”
When introducing two animals for the first time, it’s important to focus on bite prevention, Blong says. “It’s best if they’re on leashes so if there’s any sign of aggression, they can be separated easily.” You should also understand your dog’s temperament. For example, if she’s timid, going to the dog park with other dogs may not be a good idea. “Instead, start by playing with one dog at a time, preferably one known to be friendly with other dogs,” Blong suggests. And playtime should always be supervised.
First Aid for Trauma
Getting hit by cars and falling from windows can be deadly, causing anything from broken bones to heart and lung bruising, Nicholas says.
If your pet is injured, you need to get her to a vet, even if she seems fine, Blong says. “There may be serious internal injuries, even if there are no external ones.”
If possible, transport her on a firm surface such as a piece of board. “Always be cautious when handling your pet after a trauma, as she may be scared and in pain, and bite as a result,” Blong advises. “If you don’t have a firm surface, get them onto a towel or blanket and use that as a sling or stretcher to put them into the car. If they’re able to walk, even on three legs, then they can walk to the car.”
Aspirin and ibuprofen might work for us when we’re hurting, but these medications are not appropriate for animals, Rutter says. “In addition to being unsafe and/or ineffective, OTC medications can severely limit the medications I prescribe.”
Also avoid DIY splints, which Blong says can be harmful if not applied correctly. But, “if you are concerned that something is bleeding significantly, you can apply firm direct pressure to the area if your pet will tolerate it.”
To prevent an accident, use a leash and consider your companion before opening windows, especially if you live on a high level. “Be sure screens are secure, open the window a crack, or use fans or air conditioners instead,” says Dr. Heather Loenser, veterinary advisor for professional and public affairs for the American Animal Hospital Association.
Water Fun Without the Hazards
Not all dogs are good swimmers, Loenser cautions. “Be sure they can swim and that they don’t panic when put into the water. They should also wear life jackets when on boats or docks.”
If an animal becomes distressed, place her on the ground on her side, Nicholas advises. “Gently extend her neck, and ideally have the nose/head slightly lower than the rest of the body to encourage natural drainage of water from the lungs, and to prevent any vomited stomach contents from getting into the lungs.”
If she isn’t breathing or doesn’t have a pulse, he recommends beginning Cardiopulmonary Cerebral Resuscitation (CPCR) then getting her to the vet immediately. “Even if a pet doesn’t seem impacted, a vet should evaluate and monitor her for 48 to 72 hours,” Nicholas says. “Serious problems can occur days later from even a small amount of fluid in the lungs.”
Parasites are another water hazard. Loenser suggests talking to your veterinarian about vaccinating for leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause symptoms like increased thirst and urination, decreased appetite, lethargy, and vomiting, and leads to kidney and liver failure.
Chlorine in swimming pools can cause stomach upset and eye irritation if ingested, Loesner cautions. “Concentrated pool chemicals are highly toxic if your pet accidentally ingests them. So keep the pool house door closed, and rinse the chlorine off your dog after swimming.”
Avoid Walking on Hot Surfaces
If the ground is too hot for you, it’s probably too hot for your pet, Nicholas says. The full extent of paw pad burns often isn’t obvious until hours to days after the burn, he adds. To avoid burns, he advises against prolonged walks on hot surfaces like asphalt and sand, and to have dogs wear booties when needed. “Also, put the back of your hand on the ground and hold it there. If it gets too hot for you after seven to 10 seconds, then it’s too hot for your pet.”
If your dog does burn her feet, Nicholas recommends cool soaking them. Bandaging is often necessary, but is best left up to the vet. “Burns can be painful and benefit from pain medications, and depending on how bad they are, they may also need medicated soaks, topical treatments, and/or antibiotics.”
Just like us, pets are also at risk of sunburn. Keep pets indoors or in the shade during the sunniest parts of the day, he says. “Dogs and cats with light-colored coats and those with thin coats are at highest risk, and the tips of ears, nose, and belly are the most common sites of sun damage.” UV-blocking clothes and hats are available for pets, as well as an FDA-approved sunscreen for dogs, Nicholas says.
Skip These Summertime Foods
Giving your furred companion people food is generally a bad idea, especially in large amounts or if he’s not used to it, Blong says. “It can cause anything from vomiting and diarrhea to pancreatitis.”
There are some summertime foods you should avoid feeding your pet altogether. Corn on the cob tops the list, Loenser says. “They’re the perfect size to get trapped in the stomach and intestines, and can lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, and refusal to eat. Removing corn cobs from a dog’s GI tract is the most common surgery I do in the summer months.” If your dog has eaten a corn cob, ask your vet whether your dog should be forced to vomit it up, Loesner recommends.
Also avoid feeding your pet barbequed foods, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian with Truesdell Animal Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “BBQ sauce can contain onion or garlic, and both are toxic to dogs and cats,” she says. “Also, the sauce can be high in salt, which is also not recommended for dogs or cats.”
If you’re having guests over, Mandell recommends telling them in advance not to feed your pets, no matter how much they beg.
Beware of Pesticides and Poisonous Plants
Pesticides are deadly if ingested, Loenser says. “Owners often realize that their pet has ingested the poison after seeing the green/blue granules in their pet’s feces. This doesn’t mean their pet is out of the woods because the poison may have already absorbed into the blood stream despite being pooped out.”
If your pet has ingested or had contact with any toxin, it goes without saying that you should call your vet. You can also call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. One of the most common pesticides is rat and mouse poison, which can result in hemorrhaging or neurologic signs if ingested, Loenser says. Another is snail bait, which causes tremors and elevated body temperatures.
Prevent mishaps by keeping your pet away from lawns that have just been treated. “Most fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides applied to plants are not toxic once dry, so keep your pet away from them until then,” Blong advises.
If your pet has a chemical burn on her skin or paws, Jeffrey says you should rinse immediately with water. “You can also use gentle dish soap to help remove any potential toxin.”
Be wary of plants, too. Mushrooms, for example, can be deadly to dogs and cats. Thumwood knows of a 125-pound Bullmastiff who ate half a mushroom and died. “Pull out all mushrooms,” she advises.