Almost every day now there is a story on the news about climate change – the scientific consensus is pretty clear that human-driven climate change is a fact, and it is already affecting everyone worldwide. However, perhaps selfishly, we often forget about the other creatures on this planet and how they will be affected; closest to home are our pets, who will also have to endure the soaring temperatures, extreme weather and widespread disruption that is becoming increasingly more common. So how exactly will climate change affect our pets? No one knows for sure, but there are a number of predicted changes that you should be aware of as a pet owner, which will be the topic of this article today.
Big Weather Changes
We will start with the obvious change that you have probably considered already, increasing temperatures; already we are having hotter and longer summers, which can be deadly if not prepared for. Our pets struggle too, with heatstroke, sunburn and dehydration a lot more common in hot weather – these conditions can be fatal. Brachycephalic dog breeds, like pugs, French bulldogs and boxers, suffer the most, as their short faces mean it is hard for them to regulate and remove excess heat. As temperatures climb, you will have to make sure your pets can stay cool.
On the other hand, climate change can in fact lead to colder and harsher winters. Due to complex factors, we may find that the UK experiences much colder winters as climate change continues. As with high temperatures, changes will have to be made to keep our pets warm in hard winters. There are also the dangers of extreme weather patterns – storms, flooding, heatwaves, smog and so on will all become more common in the next few decades, and our pets will be facing this too. There isn’t a lot we can do to prevent these events, so it is worth starting to plan for how to deal with them now.
Did this summer feel a little… tropical to you? Well you’re not wrong, as what scientists consider to be ‘tropical’ is moving steadily north (and south, if you live in the southern hemisphere). Along with these warmer temperatures and wetter weather, come the creatures that live in those environments. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean gorillas in England, but rather increasing numbers of tropical insects, such as ticks and mosquitoes – flea seasons will also be more prolonged. Ticks cause irritation and pain as they suck blood, and can cause anaemia if a pet is heavily infested; mosquito bites have similar symptoms, and also cause allergies. However, most significant is the spread of blood-borne diseases by these insects. We will mention three of the most important for pet owners in the UK to know about, though there are many more that may become more common as climate change continues.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria, Borrelia, spread by ticks when they suck blood. It causes a distinctive ‘bulls-eye’ shaped rash, along with pain, tiredness, stiffness, headaches and fevers – in extreme infections, it can cause neurological, kidney and heart disease. Lyme disease affects dogs, cats and people, and any bitten by a tick should see a doctor or vet to make sure they are not infected with Lyme disease. Luckily, there is a vaccine available for dogs, which is already recommended if you and your dog travel abroad.
The second disease is Babesia, a tiny microscopic organism called a protozoa – this little parasite is also spread by ticks, getting into the red blood cells of both humans and animals. This can cause destruction of the cells, resulting in anaemia, uncontrollable bleeding, lethargy, organ failure and death. Treatment can be difficult, and there is no vaccine. However, appropriate anti-tick products will stop ticks attaching to your pets, preventing the transmission of both Babesia and Lyme disease. As temperatures get warmer, being up to date on your pet’s parasite control will become even more essential.
Heartworm is a disease you may have heard of and, like our previous two, is often mentioned as a risk for pets travelling to Europe. This is a blood-borne worm called Dirofilaria immitis, which is spread by mosquitoes when they bite our pets. They are mostly seen in dogs, though cats and people can be infected too. These nasty little parasites will swim through the blood and live in the heart and lungs, leading to damaged blood vessels, inflamed and fluid-filled lungs, and coughing. They can be removed surgically, or treated with drugs, but often prognosis is poor – prevention is much better than cure with these worms.
Currently, heartworm is seen all over mainland Europe, the USA and much of the rest of the world – only a few cases are seen each year in the UK, usually in pets that have travelled abroad. However, ensure you worm your pets regularly now, as it is only a matter of time before mosquitoes, and thus heartworm, become common in the UK.
Listed above are the main issues pet owners will face with climate change, but there are a number of others which may have to be considered in future. You may or may not be aware that cats, unlike dogs, have reproductive seasons tied to weather – cats are long day breeders, meaning female cats cycle and can become pregnant in spring and summer only, as the weather gets warmer. They also start puberty in their first spring. How this relates to climate change is that if temperatures get hotter earlier in the year, we may (and possibly already are) seeing cats being able to breed earlier in the year and for longer. A female cat may be able to have 3 or 4 litters a year. This could lead to increased number of stray or abandoned cats. Prevention is easy via spaying or castration, but it is still a consideration in future for breeders. Other seasonal breeding species, such as sheep and horses, may also be affected by this – however, dogs cycle all year round, so are not affected by weather changes.
Finally we have the socio-economic issues that may also affect our pets. These factors are less predictable than the ones above, and they may or may not materialise in future. However, they are a possibility, so worth mentioning. With climate change comes disruption to all aspects of life, and pets are included in this. The globe is more interconnected than ever before, with ingredients from all over the world found in your pet’s food, medicine and toys – if there is a problem in another part of the world, it may mean it temporarily becomes hard to get a certain product. The veterinary world is becoming increasingly aware of this; just last year, there was a serious shortage of anaesthetic gas due to manufacturing issues at just one factory. Larger disruption could seriously affect the standard of care vets are able to offer you.
Unfortunately, this article has been a little doom and gloom, but it is important to make people aware of the risks we all face from a danger as overwhelming as climate change. The number of pet owners is increasing year on year, so we would do a disservice not to try and inform you on how climate change will affect you and your pet more specifically. The good news is that animals are a lot more resilient than we think, even more so than people in some cases. They may even survive climate change more successfully than we do! Nevertheless, climate change is a threat that every plant, animal and person on Earth will have to face sooner or later, so it is important, more than ever, to prepare for the future.