Most of the country has experienced record heat this summer. A common response among dog owners is to get the dog shaved, thinking the dog will be cooler. Is giving your dog a buzz cut really the best choice? How can you help your dog cope with the heat?
Regular grooming, especially for non-shedding breeds such as poodles, is a good idea for any dog. However, a close shave is not recommended. Some dogs dislike short haircuts, even going into hiding after a too-close shave. But your dog’s self-image isn’t the only concern when going for extreme summer grooming. The dog’s coat provides protection against sun and heat — and against sunburn.
Regular bathing with a moisturizing shampoo and frequent brushing to remove mats, debris, and loose fur will keep your dog’s coat clean and beautiful. A shampoo with aloe and oatmeal is a good choice in hot or dry weather or for itchy dogs. A trim might be in order for long-haired or thick-coated dogs, but many groomers advise clipping the top coat and leaving the undercoat for protection. The fur provides natural protection from the sun. Dogs can not only get sunburned, they can get melanomas, just like we humans can.
Canine melanoma usually appears in dogs’ mouths and on their skin and toes — areas that might be exposed to the sun. Skin melanomas occur more on dogs with dark skin, and they look like large, flat, wrinkled masses or small, dark lumps. These tend not to spread or be malignant.
However, melanomas occurring in the mouth, behind the eyes, or on dogs’ toes can be malignant. Despite the similarity in name, these melanomas are not connected with sun exposure and are thought to have a genetic link. Early signs of an oral melanoma include bad breath, bleeding around the mouth, coughing, excessive drooling, trouble swallowing, and excessive weight loss.
Other forms of skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinomas, are often caused by sun exposure. These can be aggressive cancers. Short-haired (or shaved) dogs are at greater risk for squamous cell carcinomas, and they often occur on the feet, abdomen, and around the genitals — areas with thin or no hair. Squamous cell tumors look like warts and are firm and raised from the skin surface.
Finally, mast cell tumors, the most common form of canine skin cancer, are usually slow-growing but can also be aggressive and can cause inflamed ulcers on the dog’s body. These might be genetically linked, but they have also been linked to irritants or inflammation of the skin.
Monitor your dog carefully — daily brushing and petting will help you notice changes in skin color or texture. Have a veterinarian check any growth or tumor immediately. Many skin cancers can be treated successfully if caught early.
But skin cancer is not the only heat-related summer problem.
Dogs can overheat and even get sunstroke from spending too much time in the summer sun — or in a hot car. On a warm day, never leave a dog inside a closed car! Even with windows open, the interior of the car heats up fast and is much hotter than even the outdoor temperature. Sunlight streaming through the glass windows is turned into heat. Too many pets die each summer because their owners left them in the car “just for a minute.” Don’t risk it.
It is possible to enjoy outdoor play with your dog in the summer, though. Dark-haired dogs can wear white T-shirts to stay cooler (wet the shirt to keep the dog even cooler). Or let your dog wear a cold, wet bandanna or neck wrap to cool off. Other dogs take matters into their own paws, finding a pool or puddle to lie down in. If there’s a dog-friendly beach nearby, spend a day at the dog beach.
Enjoy the summer — but make sure that your dogs have shade when outdoors, can come indoors in hot weather, and always have access to fresh water.