Last month’s patient came in lame and hobbling so badly it was hard to tell which limb was at fault. By the time I was through with my complete examination, I’d figured it out: It was all of them. What’s more, I’d uncovered the cause easily enough: burnt pads; more than likely from walking on hot pavement, which this dog does every day.
But here’s the rub (isn’t there always a rub?): The owners were unwilling to accept my diagnosis.
"They don’t look burnt." Yes they do. You just don’t remember what they looked like before.
"We never walk for more than half an hour." If the pavement’s hot enough, five minutes is more than enough. And the heat index has been over a hundred for the past month!
"He would have let us know if he was uncomfortable during the walk." Your dog would probably follow you to the ends of the earth and never complain.
In the end I had to tell them in no uncertain terms that an expensive set of X-rays was not going to help me achieve a diagnosis they’d rather hear. As if it’d be preferable to have the dog suffer something more serious than what amounts to a really bad sunburn — of the feet.
Which is why I was elated to get this e-mail yesterday:
As we experience this hot summer weather, I am hopeful that everyone is already aware of the repercussions of leaving their pets in hot cars. But would you please address the issue of walking dogs on the hot pavement. I see pets "hopping" along and don't think their owners are aware of the fact that the pads of their paws can easily get burned on the pavement. Is that not correct?
To which I replied in the most chipper Miami Herald voice I could muster:
It is indeed correct! Dogs and cats may seem like they have little sensitivity to what lies beneath their feet only because their pads are made to be great at distributing pressure. That’s why rocks and irregular surfaces are no big deal. But heat is another thing entirely.
Both dogs’ and cats’ pads are very sensitive to hot temperatures, but it’s our dogs we really need to look out for. Cats, after all, are great at staying away from uncomfortable surfaces. They’re rarely in a position where heat avoidance isn’t doable.
Dogs, on the other hand, are willing to do almost anything we ask them to — even walk over hot coals. In fact, every time we put our dogs on a leash and go for a walk on South Floridian mid-summer hot pavement, that’s effectively what we’re asking them to do.
Not only is this an uncomfortable proposition, but given a long enough walk at hot enough temperatures a dog’s pads will burn. Painfully discolored (often whitish), blistering burns are most often revealed to owners when these dogs start to limp, hobble, or finally stop walking. But too often the problem doesn’t become obvious until the next day, when signs like paw-licking, limping and swelling develop.
"But wouldn’t my dog somehow let me know if his paws hurt?"
That’s the question I’m most often asked by skeptical owners after I’ve diagnosed pad burns. Sure, pad burns aren’t always severe so they’re not always very obvious, but a burnt pad — like a bad sunburn — doesn’t have to blister and fester to hurt.
And here’s the thing about dogs: They rarely let us know when things really hurt — in this case, on the hot walk or otherwise. When it comes to leash walks in particular, few energetic dogs are willing to let their humans down.
So dog owners should keep it in mind: If it’s too hot for you to walk barefoot, it’s too hot for your dog, too!
This is something I do hope last month’s burnt pad patient’s "parents" remember from now on. Actually, I’m sure they will. Because as the bottoms of his feet healed and peeled as part of the process (sometimes they do that), it became clear that pad burn was not a diagnosis they could easily deny.
Dr. Patty Khuly