For five days straight the temperature has soared above 105 degrees. The humidity stays low in this part of the world—often below twenty percent, sometimes into single digits—so it’s easier to beat the heat here than in more humid climates. But we live “off the grid,” and our solar power system can’t handle the energy demands of an air conditioner. Since our water comes out of a spring in the hill, we need to be efficient with our usage. And while it’s great to have all these windows to let in the view of the mountains, it can be a little like living in a greenhouse. So I take a special interest in discovering creative ways to keep Savannah cool here at home, and also on the road.
Here at home, the first line of defense is to keep the heat from entering in the first place. You’re probably used to closing curtains or blinds to keep the sun from shining in, but don’t overlook the idea of adding a layer of thermal insulation, especially where the light is most intense. Most skylights are designed to gather sunlight all day long, and may be the greatest source of heat overall. There are many types of insulation you can buy, and just a few yards stretched over skylights and any windows that bring in the most light will make an enormous difference for a one-time investment. For an inexpensive home-crafted solution, try fixing aluminum foil directly against the glass surface. That will reflect a great deal of light and heat and keep everyone in the family more comfortable. If you’re able to use an air conditioner it will drastically reduce your cooling costs.
If you live in a dry climate an evaporative cooler, or “swamp cooler,” is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative to an air conditioner. It includes a fan that passes hot dry air across a wet fibrous surface; as the water evaporates it lowers the temperature of the air. There are models designed specifically for energy efficiency, that will run off a solar panel or DC battery.
Even with your best efforts your home may still be uncomfortable on the warmest afternoons. In any case you and your animal friends can’t stay inside from now till October, so you’ve probably developed an arsenal of methods for cooling the animals themselves when it’s warm indoors and for spending time out in the yard. Here are some of my favorites:
Water and moving air are Savannah’s best friends in the hottest days. I keep a fan in all the places in the house where she likes to sleep, and a spray mister bottle within reach. Since dogs—and cats—don’t have sweat glands I keep her body wet with the sprayer, and keep the air moving around her so the evaporating water cools the surface of her body. When the breeze begins to kick up in the afternoon we go outside, but on the warm days I keep the mister handy out there, too. Better yet, a gentle spray with the garden hose gets her wet down to her skin. That’s particularly important with cats and thick-coated dogs.
A lightweight cloth (terrycloth works well) soaked in cool water and stretched across the torso is an extension of the spray mister idea.
Rummage through your dog’s stash of winter sweaters stored in the closet. If there’s one that’s not likely to stretch when wet, soak it in cool water and let it do hot weather duty.
Soak a thick towel in water and place it on the floor or on the bed in front of the fan. As the air moves over it, once again the evaporation will lower the temperature of the air—instant on-the-spot swamp cooler!
I once found a great deal (just twenty dollars!) on a used twin-sized water bed. I set it up in a shady spot on the deck, and on hot afternoons it was the coolest spot around. It’s amazing how well that large thermal mass retains the lower temperature of the cooler times of day. There were many afternoons that summer when asked Savannah to move over a bit and share it with me.
Choose a bed that’s elevates your loved one off the ground to allow the air to flow underneath. Most are made for dogs, but cats enjoy them, too.
Fill a plastic jug or large plastic bag with water and freeze it, them place it (or several) at the edge of the bed. It will generate a bit of cool air, and if you wrap it in a soft towel your friend may enjoy leaning against it while he sleeps.
Add ice cubes to the water bowl. This may have more entertainment value than actual cooling effect, but if it encourages your friend to drink more it’s well worthwhile. Try making flavored cubes using vegetable broth, fruit juice, or another of her personal favorite taste treats.
A child’s plastic wading pool might be buckets of fun for your dog—or at least an effective way to get a thick coat good and wet for cats and dogs who aren’t drawn to the water. Remember that small animals may have difficulty getting out of a pool even if it’s only a few inches high, so don’t let them have access to it when you’re not there to watch. Also, those small pools heat up quickly in the sun, and can be a gathering place for wasps and other bugs, so plan to change the water daily.
There are a variety of cooling collars, vests, and mats designed to stay cool for long periods of time when wet. Some are made from beads or crystals that hold large amounts of water and maintain the evaporative cooling effect by keeping the moisture in contact with animals’ body. Use these with caution, as there may be some leaching of unsafe substances onto the coat. However, items that keep cool moisture encased in a sealed outer layer can be helpful. These, too, are most often marketed for dogs, but can work just as well for cats, rabbits, or other small animals.
For animals with a thick coat, regular grooming to promote natural shedding of the undercoat will help keep them cool. The long top coat can actually help insulate them from hot temperatures and sun, so think twice before you consider shaving.
We all know the last place any animal should be on a hot day is locked in a car. Temperatures inside can rise to killing extremes in minutes. Even when we park in the shade, as the sun moves and the shade moves with it, that car can quickly become an oven. If your dog is large, his body heat alone will increase the auto’s interior temperature.
Still, there are times when a road trip is unavoidable. Better yet, there are times when our nonhuman family members can join in the fun on summertime outings. Even when outside temperatures are moderately warm, we need maximum vigilance to be sure our animal friends are comfortable in the car. Many of the ideas for staying cool at home will travel well—keep that spray mister bottle close at hand, and all those cool sweaters, beds, and frozen plastic jugs can also be part of your traveling kit.
Here are a few ideas that work especially well when you head into—or out of—town:
Freeze a plastic jug of drinking water to take with you. It’ll stay cool all day long.
Give your friend a good soak just before you get into the car. It’ll give her a good head start on a cool journey. Keep her wet along the way with your spray mister bottle, or keep an eye out for places with safe access to a hose or other running water.
Spray the bed your dog uses in the car with a mist of water. The wet surface will help keep the surrounding air cool, and give him a cool surface to relax on while he watches the scenery go by.
Just as you take steps to keep the sun out of your home, look for opportunities to do the same in your car. Sitting in the direct sunlight shining into a side window makes it all but impossible to stay comfortable, even in an air conditioned car. Tinted windows make a significant difference in the interior temperature. You can also screen out direct light with a shade designed for car windows. In a pinch, tuck the end of a beach towel between the top of a window and the door frame.
Let your animal friend do your errands with you. In many communities, more and more businesses welcome polite animals to join you while you shop. Don’t be afraid to ask. There’ve been many times I’ve met shop owners who are surprised by the request, but who thoroughly enjoy meeting Savannah and having her bring her special energy into their stores. In several cases those shops have become “animal friendly” as a general policy, to the benefit of other dogs in town. In our area dogs are welcome in the feed stores, of course, but also hardware stores, book stores, office supply stores, even the credit union. Try it—you may start a new movement in your community!
Remember that your dog’s pads are sensitive, and avoid hot pavement or sand. Minimize walking on sun-baked surfaces, and opt for shade or grass instead.
Avoid exercising in the heat of the day. Your dog will follow you anywhere, and may not stop when he gets overheated. Restrict vigorous activity to cool morning and evening hours.
It’s getting on toward evening here, and it seems the heat wave may be breaking. The breeze has shifted around so it’s bringing in that cool ocean air from the west. My friend Bec just called to tell me about her dog Lilly’s response. Lilly is a shiny, blacker-than-black little girl with a long back and short legs like a Dachshund, and a husky chest and the gregarious exuberance of a Lab. She spends most of her time in motion, but in the pressing heat this afternoon she stretched out next to Bec, with her head on the windowsill, silently watching the neighbors passing by. As the first cool breeze drifted in through the screen, the tip of Lilly’s tail twitched twice. A moment later another breeze came through, stronger this time, and her tail took on a full thump-thump-thump. She closed her eyes and let out a long, grateful sigh.
Lilly, I couldn’t have said it better.