Just as we humans enjoy the outdoors, so do our pets. However, there are hidden risks to our pets when they venture outside, even if it’s only in the back yard. We should take precautions and be aware of lurking dangers that can sicken or injure our animal companions.
Increased outdoor temperature is a contributing factor to heatstroke, but it is an avoidable condition. An animal develops heatstroke when its body temperature rises to a dangerous point (often it is over 106 degrees Fahrenheit) that will damage cell health and normal functions.
Heatstroke often occurs during the first warm spell of spring, when a pet is not used to activity in warmer temperatures.
Dogs at greater risk are those that are older, overweight and brachycephalic. Also at risk are pets left unattended in a parked car, which can reach dangerously high temperatures very quickly on a warm day.
UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Karl Jandrey recommends that “the best way to avoid heatstroke is to slowly reintroduce activity to your pet, while ensuring it has breaks for drinking plenty of water or cooling off in a pool or safe body of water.”
Jandrey also advises that if you suspect your pet is overheated, with signs of weakness, increased respiratory effort or rate, excessive “panting” (or not panting at all), or even vomiting, stop the activity. Cool your pet by soaking its coat down to the skin and then see a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Drive with the air conditioning on, or if your pet is secured and away from the windows, have the windows down to encourage evaporative cooling. Always know the location of the closest emergency clinic, even when traveling.
Protecting against Rattlesnake Bites
Some dogs love to hike with their owners, especially as the weather warms. So it is important to remember that the risk of rattlesnake bites is most common between April and October.
Here are a few tips to help avoid rattlesnake bites:
- Keep away from areas with tall grass, rocks or wood piles.
- Stay on trails and have your dog on a leash.
- Use a walking stick to rustle brushes along the trail to alert snakes of your presence.
Curious dogs often get bitten on the nose as they investigate typically reclusive snakes. “The best thing to do if your dog is bitten is to get to the nearest veterinarian quickly”, Dr. Jandrey advises. “A veterinarian can determine the course of treatment based on your dog’s symptoms. A rattlesnake vaccine does not necessarily prevent the need for veterinary attention or treatment!”
Preventing Infectious Diseases
Infections from Fleas, Mosquitoes and Ticks
Cats and dogs that go outdoors are susceptible to infections transmitted by fleas, mosquitoes and ticks. Even though your pet may not leave the yard or have direct exposure to other animals, it is still at risk for infection. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Jane Sykes offers helpful tips in protecting your pet against infectious diseases.
The most common disease transmitted by mosquitoes is heartworm disease. Since there are mosquitoes living year-round in many locations, the use of heartworm preventatives is an effective way to protect against this disease.
Dogs are typically more likely to develop tick-borne diseases than cats. Dr. Sykes explains that these diseases include a febrile illness known as granulocytic anaplasmosis and Lyme disease. Bartonella is a bacteria transmitted by fleas and possibly ticks (which manifests as cat scratch disease in people).
It can cause endocarditis (heart problems) in dogs, though most cats infected with Bartonella do not get sick at all. A variety of products is available to protect against ticks. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions or the products will not be effective.
Dr. Sykes warns that “cats are susceptible to toxicity from many tick products (permethrin and amitraz), so sometimes cats can get sick if they live with a dog using these products. If you have cats, make sure you use a product that is safe for cats, such as flumethrin or fipronil.”
Check your pet for ticks after outdoor activities and remove any ticks promptly. This will help prevent the spread of tick-borne infectious diseases. Do not use bare hands when removing ticks, but use a special device (or curved forceps).
With the forceps, grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upwards with steady, even pressure and make sure the tick’s mouth parts do not break off and remain in the skin. If that happens, disinfect the area and watch carefully for the possibility of infection. If you see signs of swelling or redness, your pet should be checked by a veterinarian.
Feline Infectious Diseases
Cats who spend time outdoors are at risk for a number of infectious diseases. The most common one is an abscess that occurs from an injury received during a fight with another cat.
Cats who fight are also at risk for acquiring two viral infections, including feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. These viruses can gradually impair a cat’s immune system. The end result, often several years later, may be cancer or other infectious diseases.
Feline viral upper respiratory disease and feline panleukopenia virus are also transmitted between cats. Some of these viruses require repeated or more intimate exposures than others.
This disease is seen most often in dogs who are outdoors, but more often during times of warm and wet weather. Leptospires are bacteria that can cause fever and kidney failure in dogs. Dr. Sykes advises that “good vaccines are available for the prevention of leptospirosis and are recommended for dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors.”
Other infectious Diseases
Kennel cough is a respiratory illness contracted when cats or dogs are housed in close quarters. “If you are planning to travel and leave your pet at a boarding kennel, consult with your veterinarian and care provider for the proper vaccination requirements”, Dr. Sykes recommends. It is also important to allow time for adequate immune response.
Cats and dogs can be exposed to infectious diseases when they eat lizards, rabbits, raw fish or rodents. These diseases include salmonellosis and rare diseases, like plague or tularemia, which can make people very sick too.
A variety of fungal organisms, such as Aspergillus and Cryptococcus, can also cause disease in dogs. One uncommon but serious disease is pythiosis, which is found in water sources in some areas of California. This is a fungus-like organism that can infect the gastrointestinal tract and cause bloody diarrhea and weight loss in dogs. It is very difficult to treat. Animals with congenital immune system disorders are susceptible to more serious complications.
Keeping Safe from Toxic Plants and Products
Poisonings from toxic plants and products and certain common people foods can happen year round, not just during warm weather. Cats and dogs can get into household toxins if they are not properly applied and stored.
Commonly ingested substances include antifreeze, fertilizers, household compost or garbage, insecticides, medications, rat poisons and plants (such as lilies, oleander, sago palm and yew).
Common things that people eat, such as avocados, chewing gum with xylitol, chocolate, coffee / espresso beans, grapes / raisins, macadamia nuts and onions / garlic, can be very toxic for pets. Dr. Jandrey has this advice:
“Take a quick assessment of the environment to see if anything is disturbed or eaten. Sometimes, dogs who eat intoxicating products will leave part of the packaging or small crumbs of the material. When you take your pet to the veterinarian, make sure to bring any packaging material such as medication vials or containers with labels indicating name brands or ingredients.”
Prevention is key to protecting against poisonings. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Gina Davis-Wurzler cautions to “avoid using toxic products in your yard whenever possible and be familiar with proper application and storage of the products you use.”
“If you use a pest control service, make sure to inform your service that you have pets and ask them to use pet-safe products whenever possible”, Dr. Davis-Wurzler advises.”When choosing plants for your yard, make sure you choose non-toxic plants”, she adds.
Safeguarding against Other Dangers
Ideally, pets should not be left unattended outside at any time. However, this may not always be possible. So Dr. Davis-Wurzler offers some simple tips to help safeguard pets.
All pets need proper identification, such as microchips and license tags and tags with contact and medical information. Microchips are now considered standard for permanent identification, which is a simple, inexpensive outpatient procedure that can be performed by your local veterinarian.
Licensing your dog increases the likelihood that your dog will be returned to you if it gets lost and helps pay for local animal shelters. If your pet has a specific medical condition that requires ongoing medication, such as diabetes, have it wear a tag with that information too.
If your cat insists on going outside, or you feel that its quality of life is improved by spending some time outside, then let it go outside with supervision or consider installing cat fencing around your yard. If that is not feasible, allow your cat to go outside only when you are home and make sure that it has proper identification.
Your pet should have free access to fresh water, as well as shade and a safe place to hide or rest. Also consider having a misting system installed where your pet resides.
When you walk your dog on rough terrain or on hot surfaces, such as asphalt, make sure it wears booties to protect its paws. There are various types of booties available. Look for those that are designed to fit over paws, are somewhat loose and held in place with Velcro. The stretchable latex type of booties may cause constriction. Carry fresh water with you at all times and keep your dog close by to better prevent injury.
Watching for Warning Signs
Pets can be very brave and may not necessarily exhibit pain the way people do. Dr. Davis-Wurzler suggests to carefully watch for warning signs that warrant a trip to the veterinarian. Warning signs include:
- Unable to stand or walk or seems reluctant to move for any reason.
- Crying or whimpering as if in pain.
- Wounds deeper than a mild scratch (puncture wound, open / gaping wound or swelling).
- Vomiting, decreased appetite and lethargy.
- Gagging, retching or coughing.
- Sneezing, head shaking or licking paws shortly after a walk (signs that a foxtail or plant bur may have lodged in the ear, nose or paw).
- Facial swelling or difficulty breathing (signs that possibly a bee sting or plant thorn is causing a severe reaction).
Warm weather offers many opportunities for fun activities in the outdoors. Following a few precautions is the best way to make sure that your pet stays safe and healthy to enjoy these activities with you.
Outdoor Safety Tips at a Glance
- Have fresh water available at all times.
- Know the location of the nearest veterinary clinic.
- Know the risks for the area in which you are traveling.
- Have your pet microchipped.
- Protect your pet’s paws from hot, rough, surfaces.
- Check paws often when hiking in rough terrain or provide booties.
- Create a pet “go bag” that should include:
- Record of your pet’s current prescriptions.
- Bottled water.
- First-aid kit, including flea and tick treatment and other items recommended by your veterinarian.
Image credit: Wikimedia.