All animals are susceptible heat-related stress, so in the warmer months we need to pay attention to how all of our pets are coping with the heat. For ectothermic pets like reptiles and amphibians this is especially critical.
Make sure any cages and tanks do not receive direct sunlight through a window, or overheating could be a problem (this is true for any time of year). If your pets' cage is getting too warm, you can try relocating it to a cooler location in the home such as the basement, or invest in air conditioning (central or just a window mounted air conditioner to keep a single room cooler for your pets). However, if you do use air conditioning, make sure the room is not too cool and that your pets are not getting cold air blown directly at their cages. Another alternative that works well with small animals like rabbits and chinchillas is to fill empty, clean pop bottles with water, freeze them, wrap them in a t-shirt or towel, and place one or two in your pets' cages when the temperature soars. Wrapping them helps absorb condensation as well as preventing pets from getting too cold if they lay up against them (Make sure towels are tightly woven with no loose threads or loops, or use a shirt or sweatshirt to wrap them). Also, make sure your pet is not chewing up and ingesting the plastic of the bottle.
Reptiles, amphibians, and other ectothermic creatures present their own unique problems when it comes to heat. These animals depend on the environment to regulate their body temperature, so their owners must ensure that their terrariums stay at the proper temperature and humidity year round. Make it a habit to regularly check the temperature in their cages (use a thermometer inside the terrarium to check temperatures; don't try to estimate based on room temperatures). You should also monitor and adjust humidity as needed.
- Temperature: Keep terrariums away from windows and out of the warmest areas of your home. For tropical species, you may just need to turn off tank heaters for part (or all) of the day during hot spells. For species that prefer cooler temperatures, you may have to use air conditioning or move terrariums to a cool room. If needed, you can use the frozen water bottle method, though this makes it harder to fine-tune the temperature. For amphibians, who usually prefer relatively cool water temps, you can add ice cubes made out of dechlorinated water or float a small frozen water bottle in the water to cool it if necessary, but you must avoid drastic temperature fluctuations. Submersible cooling coils are available and offer better control of cooling, but are quite expensive.
- Humidity: Monitor humidity levels with a hygrometer in the terrarium, and adjust the ventilation as necessary to maintain humidity (increasing ventilation or air flow results in lower humidity). If you live in a humid climate, you may need to increase ventilation. If you live in a very dry, hot climate you may need to decrease ventilation (cover some screened area with tape or plastic) and increase the misting of the tank. Adding an additional dish of water can help with humidity too.
The summer heat means an increased risk of dehydration, which can quickly become an emergency especially with small pets. Always make sure your pet has access to water, and make sure that it is clean and fresh. With animals that are watered via a bottle, make sure the mechanism is functioning properly so that your pet can access the water that is there. If watered via a bowl, make sure the bowl is not tipped or the water has not been soiled. During hot weather, offer fresh, cool water several times a day.
Many animals benefit from spending time outdoors with access to natural sunlight, and some can even spend all their time in outdoor pens in nice weather. However, overheating can be a serious problem in the summer heat. If your pet spends any time outdoors, make sure shade is always available - pay attention as the sun moves across the sky to make sure that the shade doesn't disappear as the day goes on. For animals that live outdoors, it is vital to make sure there is plenty of shelter and shade from the sun within their enclosures at all times!
Also, make sure that a freshwater source is available at all time, and that it is kept clean. For pets that are outdoors, providing sprinklers, misters, or a shallow pool of water to climb into can help with cooling.
Be especially careful between 10 am and 3 pm as this is when the sun and heat tend to be most intense. If your pet is active outdoors, this is especially important, as it will be more difficult for a pet to cool down if it is exercising and producing added body heat.
Sunburn can also plague our pets, especially pot-bellied pigs who don't have the benefit of a fur coat to protect their skin. Sunscreen can be used on pigs if necessary, but providing ample shade is most important. For other species, areas such as the nose, ear tips or any other sparsely haired areas can also be susceptible. Keeping pets out of the sun is probably the most prudent preventative measure against sunburn.
Signs of heat stroke include heavy panting, shakiness or staggering, disorientation or loss of consciousness. If your pet exhibits any of these signs, get him or her into a cooler location immediately and get to a vet as soon as possible. Putting water on your pet can help cool it down on the way to the vet, but go slowly (don't soak your pet) and start on the extremities (e.g. the legs).
Perhaps the biggest heat stroke risk for pets is being left enclosed in cars in the heat. Never leave a pet unattended in a car for any length of time. Even with the windows down, this can quickly become a lethal situation.
Most of the precautions we should take for our pets in the summer are simply common sense. Just remember that many pets do not have cooling systems as efficient as ours, so we must take a few extra steps to make sure they do not suffer from the heat.
More on Keeping Pets Cool: