Salubrious Summer

by Jeff Fleischer

(Chicagoland Tails, July 2007)

Summer is a great time for people to be outside, but it carries a number of risks for animals. To keep your pets safe, it’s important to avoid harmful situations by taking some preventative steps. Luckily, many of the same techniques that are better for pets are also better for the environment.

Keeping Critters Away

Summer means bugs, and pets are frequent victims of fleas and ticks. Collars and sprays are common ways to kill these pests, but they work with highly toxic pesticides explains Dr. Fred Ohm, a veterinarian and Kansas State University professor who oversees the school’s animal poison control hotline. “All pesticides are potentially dangerous, and the most dangerous are the organophosphate insecticides,” he says. “What people need to realize is that a chemical [they’re] using to kill a pest can kill their animals, too.”

When considering any flea- or tick-control product, make sure to read the list of active ingredients and avoid any organophosphates or carbamates, which are essentially nerve poisons. The government has banned several of these chemicals in recent years, but others like tetrachlorvinphos, carbaryl, and propoxur are still sold in pet products. Also watch out for products containing phenothrin, which has caused dangerous side effects, including death, in cats.

A better alternative is using pills that contain insect growth regulators (IGR), non-pesticide chemicals that prevent fleas or ticks from reaching maturity and reproducing. Just be aware that some products combine IGRs and the dangerous toxins listed above.

But there are also simple and environmentally friendly ways to prevent these bugs. The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests keeping your lawn cut short, washing your pet’s bedding in hot water once a week, and bathing your pet in soapy water every few weeks. It’s also a good idea to vacuum regularly and, if fleas are already around, dispose of the vacuum bag inside a sealed plastic bag so that any bugs already sucked up can’t get back in the house.

Citronella candles and coils, both popular ways to ward off mosquitoes, can also be toxic to overexposed pets. Don’t leave an animal in any small area with such products, and don’t store them where they can ingest them, as the oil can cause aspiration pneumonia.

There are a number of pest-control products on the market containing boric acid, citrus extract, and other natural pesticides. Just remember that while they’re better for the environment, they can still be dangerous to children or pets. Follow instructions carefully and keep your animals away from contact with these products.

Safety from the Sun

Just as too much sun can be dangerous for people, it can also become a problem for pets. After all, they’re covered in fur and don’t sweat as readily as humans.

While sunburn isn’t a common problem for companion animals, it is fairly easy to treat naturally, as are paw burns that come from hot asphalt. “The standard old things like aloe and any kind of soothing product for people can work equally efficiently for animals,” says Dr. Carvel Tiekert, executive director of the Maryland-based American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. “But the main thing is not to tie an animal out in the sun. Animals are smart enough that they’re not normally going to get sunburned unless they don’t have an option to get out of the sun.”

If you’re going to leave a dog outside, make sure he has a doghouse or other shelter. Cats are always safer indoors, and white cats in particular can be susceptible to sun-based skin cancers.

Of course, leaving a pet in a car is always potentially deadly, as temperatures inside can reach well past 100 degrees. And though a walking trip with a pet is a much healthier and greener idea, make sure to know what your animal can handle. “Certain breeds tolerate heat better than others,” Tiekert says. “For example, you don’t want to take a Bulldog out for a run on a 100-degree day because their respiratory systems have small air passages and they can rapidly go into heatstroke.”

If an animal does go into heatstroke, the immediate first-aid treatment is to use a cold-water compress to get his temperature down. Serious cases should also be taken to an emergency facility as soon as possible.

Watch out for Hairballs

Depending on the breed, some dogs and cats will shed more during the summer. That can lead to more hairballs, but there are numerous green solutions. A teaspoon of bran, canned pumpkin, or strained prunes can reduce hairballs, or one-eighth a teaspoon of the herb slippery elm (these can also sometimes help with indigestion). Otherwise, pet stores carry natural foods or gels designed to solve hairball problems.

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