How to Help Wildlife and Pets During a Heat Wave

Animals may struggle to stay cool and hydrated during extreme heat, but you can help.

European hedgehog drinking water
Sally Crossthwaite / Getty Images

You're not the only one who has to figure out how to beat the heat. Pets may stay inside more, but they still need to venture outside during a heat wave. Wild animals also struggle to cope with heat waves and droughts.

Take, for instance, the tiny hedgehog. During one of England's heat waves, the hedgehogs were struggling to stay alive, particularly the babies. They needed water, and there was none to be had.

Luckily, concerned citizens stepped up and made sure hedgehogs had water. It's simple actions that make the difference, and here are some you can take to help wildlife in your area.

Keep the Water Flowing

First and foremost is making sure wild critters have enough water and easy access to it. As the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) explains, "Having convenient supplies of clean water can make a huge difference to the survival of local wild species such as birds, butterflies and small mammals, during times of extreme heat and drought."

This is especially true for small animals that may not have a wide range, or for animals that are more mobile but become dehydrated.

Keeping the water going in your yard won't require you to keep the hose on, either. Instead, make sure there's a birdbath in your yard and that the water is clean and fresh. (If you don't have a birdbath, consider getting one.) The NWF recommends setting up a drip jug near the birdbath, something that will allow water to fall into the birdbath. The watery ploink will attract birds to the water. Once there, they'll drink and cool off.

Birds playing and splashing in a birdbath
A birdbath is an easy way for birds to get some water. Marius Peche/Shutterstock

Of course, not all animals can get to a birdbath, nor do you necessarily want certain animals to be near the birdbath. (Looking at you, cats.) For smaller critters, like those previously mentioned hedgehogs, providing small, shallow bowls of water is the best way to make sure they get the hydration they need. If you don't have any small bowls, then the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) recommends placing a stick or stone in a bigger bowl so that the animal can climb its way out of the bowl after it has quenched its thirst.

The inclination to leave food out for the critters is understandable, but experts discourage it. The NWF says water is more important to the animals' overall survival — they can get by without food for a bit, but not water — and the RSPCA advises against feeding wildlife.

If you have a garden, then maintaining it will help critters and insects alike. An especially lush garden can provide shade that some animals may crave, and covering your beds with mulch will also help the soil stay a bit moist, and that will help worms and other insects. Water, of course, plays a part in this, and keeping your plants watered will attract insects that rely on the plants for food.

Helping Wildlife with Heat Stress

Cows take to the shade to escape the heat
Just as for humans, shade is good for animals, too. val lawless/Shutterstock

In addition to needing water, animals may require some assistance with heat stress. Animals get overheated and dehydrated, the same as we do, and they manifest some of the same symptoms, including confusion, a loss of balance, and collapsing. If you see animals that are normally in the trees on the ground, or if they're normally nocturnal and you see them during the day, chances are something is wrong.

Aiding wild animals suffering from heat stress can be tricky, and if you don't feel comfortable or safe doing so, don't. Contact animal services or veterinarians instead.

If you do feel comfortable, however, the RSPCA recommends wrapping the animal in a towel and containing it in a cardboard box. Provide the animal with water to drink in a cool, safe area. Dampening the towel or spritzing the animal with mist can also help cool down the critter. Seeking the assistance of professionals, however, is still recommended since human interactions can be stressful for animals. Should you need to transport the animal to a clinic, cool down the car first and minimize the noises inside the car.

And if you're harmed while helping an animal, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Protecting your Pets

dog's paw pads
A dog's paws can easily be burned when walking on a hot pavement. Emily Skeels/Shutterstock

While your dog may not spend hours outside during an intense heatwave, many of these rules still apply. But one element that will affect a dog more than other animals is hot pavement. The asphalt's temperature can reach temperatures much higher than the air and burn your pet's paws. To tell if the pavement is too hot, place the back of your hand on the ground. If it's too hot for your hand, it's too hot for your dog.

"It’s best to stay away from cement pathways as much as possible," Aly DelaCoeur, an animal behaviorist and veterinary assistant in Seattle, told "But avoiding the cement doesn’t have to mean shying away from exercise."

Vets recommend that you walk your dog in the early morning or late evening hours and on grass as much as possible. If you live in an urban area with little access to green space, you may want to invest in booties to cover your dog's paws. While it may take them a while to adjust to wearing shoes, it can help prevent damage.

During the summer, periodically check your dog's paws for burns or dry, cracked skin. If they appear damaged, apply an ointment made just for dogs.

The same rules apply for cats. "If the cat is primarily an outdoor cat, though, then she has learned what surfaces get hot and not to walk on them," said DelaCoeur. Still, you will want to check their paws.

As always if the temperature is too high, it's best to keep your pets indoors as much as possible and provide lots of water.