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Looking after small animals in hot weather

As much as Britain is known for its cool and wet weather, it is also common to experience sudden increases in temperature and yearly heatwaves. While we are currently getting over a prolonged cold snap, it won’t be long before the weather suddenly gets warmer so it’s imperative to prepare pet owners for the unexpected, and sometimes drastic, change.

As smaller pets – such as rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, ferrets and mice – are generally kept in enclosed habitats such as cages and hutches it is completely under the responsibility of the owner to ensure they are kept in suitable conditions, as the animals are relatively restricted in their movement.

There are some simple changes that can be made to a small animal’s environment to make sure they remain comfortable and out of harm’s way as the temperature rises.

Keep water topped up

Pet owners will need to keep a closer eye on the water levels in the small animal’s habitat, as it runs the risk of evaporating in warmer weather. Pet owners should make sure that enough water is in their pets cage or hutch at all times. A good supply of water will help the small animal to regulate its fluid balance and keep it refreshed as the day goes on. The bowl or bottle the water is in should be easily accessible, but not possible to overturn. A few ice cubes can also be kept in the water to keep it sufficiently cool and prevent evaporation.

Feed them water-filled foods

One way to easily hydrate a small animal is to feed them foods with a high water content. Fruits and vegetables like cucumber, lettuce, radish, apples, berries, cherries, melon, grapes, strawberries, watercress, celery leaves, tomatoes and fresh spinach are good food-related sources of water and hydration. Be careful not to feed too much fruit to certain small animals though as the sugar can cause health problems.

Keep them in the shade

This might seem like a common one but pet owners need to be mindful of where they keep their small animals. As mentioned earlier, the cages and hutches a small animal is kept in will render it stationary, leaving the animal no option but to remain in a spot which may be too hot or harmful. Pet owners should try to keep their pets out of direct sunlight, away from windows and in an area which doesn’t get too hot throughout the day. Pet owners should also be aware of the changes that one location may go through – what might seem like a cool, shaded spot in the late afternoon could be very warm and in direct sunlight at midday. Preferably, small pets shouldn’t be kept in metal hutches or cages during summer, as they attract heat. Also, pet owners should be advised to refrain from keeping their small animal unattended in a hot car. Bear in mind animals within the store, if you sell them, as they will also need protection for window heat.

…But keep them away from fans

To make sure a small animal is kept sufficiently cool, it might be tempting for pet owners to sit them in the line of a fan or in an air-conditioned room as a quick fix to possible overheating. While small animals are particularly sensitive to heat, keeping them in the direct line of cold air for prolonged periods may leave them vulnerable to ill health, especially when left unattended. Also, if a hamster gets too cold for too long, they may go into hibernation while gerbils and ferrets may go into a lethargic, hibernation-like state – something which is discouraged among captivated pets. A fan might also be ineffective as it works by cooling down human sweat thus regulating our temperature, however, small animals do not perspire.

Look out for fly strike

Fly strike – or Myiasis – is more common in the summer months, so it is something that pet owners need to keep an eye on. Fly strike is caused by green bottle flies and other related fly species laying eggs on smaller animals – namely rabbits, and it can be potentially fatal. The  flies are attracted to damp fur, urine, faeces and the odour of a small animal’s scent glands and the maggots which hatch from the laid eggs can eat the flesh of small animals as well as release dangerous toxins. Small pets with a wet or dirty groin are most at risk, including those which are unable to clean themselves properly. Pet owners who detect maggots in their pet’s fur should contact a vet and try their best to remove as many of them with tweezers and shaving off damp or dirty fur. Maggots embedded in the fur can also be encouraged to the surface with a warm, damp towel. Flystrike can be avoided by not overfeeding a small animal and not feeding them too many greens and fruit – which can lead to diarrhea and a dirty groin or anus. Pets and their surroundings must also be cleaned regularly.

Be wary of heatstroke

Pet owners should look out for signs of overheating and heatstroke or hyperthermia in their small pets. Smaller animals are sensitive to heat while older and sedentary animals are more prone to heatstroke. Other factors such as a lack of water, lack of shade and stress can also increase the risk of overheating. Signs of heatstroke include panting, a bright red tongue slobbering, or thick, sticky saliva, depression, weakness, reluctance to move and convulsions. Any pet owners who notice these symptoms in their small animals should move their pet into shade, lower its temperature by wetting its ears and and be advised to contact a vet.

Don’t keep hutch on ground, ventilate it

A hard surface can become too warm in the summer months, so one way a pet owner can keep their small animal cool is to ventilate their cage or hutch by keeping it off the ground. Placing a few bricks under a small pet’s habitat will lift it off the ground and can allow breeze to run through the cage or hutch to provide the animal with some much-needed ventilation.

Keep them cool

Leaving a small animal in the shade might not be sufficient when it is very humid and warm. A pet owner can place a cooled ceramic tile in their pets cage from them to rest on, to keep their temperature down. It might also be handy to freeze a large bottle of water or two to be placed in the animal’s cage or hutch to keep the atmosphere cooler. It might also be helpful to suggest a small animal owner invests in a misting spray or system, while allowing for dry areas in the hutch or cage so the small animal can escape the mist when required. If a misting system is used, pet owners should be vigilant about changing their small animal’s litter tray and hay to avoid the formation of mould and to ward off flies.

Groom pets

Pet owners should be advised to regularly groom and trim the hair of their small pets, namely long-haired rabbits and guinea pigs. This will help the small animals to keep cool in warmer temperatures as their hair and fur helps them to retain heat. Small animals don’t sweat so when they have more fur or hair they are unable to stop themselves from getting overheated.

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