When some pets struggle to keep their cool: signs that your cat or dog is stressed by the hot summer weather

  • Animal experts explain why high temperatures can be tough for certain breeds, such as pugs and French bulldogs, to handle
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Doris Wai |

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Flat-faced breeds, such as French bulldogs, have short snouts that make it hard for them to cool themselves by panting. Photo: Shutterstock

From carrying a portable fan to drinking ice-cold drinks, many of us have ways to stay cool in the sweltering heat. But our beloved furry companions might need extra help adjusting to warm temperatures.

Dr Lawren Durocher-Babek, a small animal internal medicine specialist, and Dr Angel Ngo, an emergency vet, at Hong Kong’s Zodiac Pet and Exotic Hospital, discuss how we can help our four-legged friends when extreme heat causes them stress.

Why selective breeding causes problems

Many pets have unique ways to cool off, such as drinking more water, panting to get rid of excess body heat, seeking out shaded spots, and laying on cold surfaces. However, it can be tougher for animals to use these methods when breeders select specific traits.

One example is found in brachycephalic, or flat-faced, dog breeds like the pug and French bulldog. Their prized short snouts cause breathing difficulties because the dogs have too much tissue in their throats.

“This means they cannot pant as effectively and handle heat as well,” Durocher-Babek said.

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Exotic shorthair and Persian cats are other examples of brachycephalic breeds. Their short snouts and tiny nostrils make them prone to heatstroke.

These selected physical traits can interfere with the body’s natural ability to maintain a healthy body temperature.

Those with thick fur coats such as the Maine coon, Turkish angora, Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute have been specially bred for cooler climates. So when they are raised in hot places, they struggle to stay cool.

Turkish angora cats are prized for their long, silky coats. Photo: Shutterstock

How heat affects behaviour

Animal experts are still studying how heat stress affects pets’ mental health, but their day-to-day behaviour is usually a good indicator of how they are doing.

In hot weather, pets might become more aggressive than usual.

“When they [dogs] are busy panting, they are unable to explore their surroundings as well. This can lead them to feel vulnerable and nervous, and they may act out,” Ngo pointed out. “When approached by a stranger, normally the dog may sniff and show interest. But when stressed, they may turn to growling [and] baring teeth.

They might even be reluctant to go out for their daily walks.

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Durocher-Babek added that animals with tracheal collapse – a condition where their windpipe collapses – would be prone to heatstroke. This issue worsens in the heat, which can make them more stressed.

“Just imagine drinking with a plastic straw. When you suck on it too hard, the straw will collapse instead of [allowing] water to flow through. When they are feeling hot, they will breathe harder, and hence, making the trachea collapse,” Ngo explained.

“Cats and dogs might even feel terror as they do not understand what is causing them to have difficulty breathing and end up struggling, making the situation worse,” she added.

Dr Lawren Durocher-Babek (left) and Dr Angel Ngo are both from Zodiac Pet and Exotic Hospital. Photos: Handout

What to watch out for

One of the first signs of heat stress is when dogs or cats pant so much that they cannot move, drink or eat. Another symptom is a change in tongue colour.

Ngo said: “If their tongue is turning blue or dark, that is a bad sign they are not getting enough oxygen.”

While these symptoms can be alarming, Ngo shared ways to help pets feel better when temperatures soar. These include turning on a fan or air conditioner, moving them and their sleeping areas into the shade, and ensuring they have plenty of water.

“It’s also a good idea to minimise outdoor activities on hot days and only take your pets for a walk at cooler times of the day. And allow them to rest as soon as they show signs of fatigue,” she said. “These tips will help your pets stay happy and safe during the summer heat.”

Click here for a printable worksheet and interactive exercises about this story.

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