A history of the hottest time of the year
July 3rd through August 11: The “dog days” of summer. These sticky, stagnant couple of weeks when the weather seems aggressively hot. Greenery takes on a yellow tinge of drought, the family dog refuses his afternoon walk and humans everywhere hunker down in dark, air-conditioned homes…trying to move as little as possible until the sun goes down.
For most of us, the dog days are mostly just an inconvenience. But before air-conditioning, hot weather could kill! A recent study comparing heat-related deaths to daytime temperatures from 1900 to 2004 showed a startling 80% drop in 1960, the year air-conditioning became common in U.S. homes and businesses. Indeed, about 3600 premature deaths annually could be attributed to days when the temperatures rose above 90 degrees. Terminal heat exhaustion was a real danger for everyday citizens in the generations before mechanically-chilled air.
According to Clavis Calendaria (an 1812 calendar study by Londoner John Brady), the “dog days” were named by ancient Romans who looked to the heavens and saw the remarkably brilliant star Sirius appear to break out of the sun itself, into the constellation Canis Major (aka “Great Dog”).
This astronomical curiosity happened to occur during the hottest weather of the year, which seemed to suggest that a giant sky dog was responsible for sweltering Summer temperatures. ‘Twas was an evil time when:
the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.
People kinda feared summer, back then. In fact, when Sirius first appeared, the ancients sacrificed a brown dog to try to appease what they assumed must be rage from above, responsible for torturously hot temperatures. 😬🐕 Sounds crazy, but wasn’t all that long ago that local newspapers blamed Philadelphia’s stifling mid-summer heat and humidity for all sorts of mad behavior, including self-harm.
The popular term in the press was “heat dementia” — and newspapers of the time spared no grisly details when temperatures soared, and city residents reacted in shocking ways….
Heat Affects His Mind (The Philadelphia Times. August 12, 1900)
George Mitchell, a passenger on the train from Atlantic City, became demented from the extreme heat in Camden. His peculiar actions caused his arrest for drunkenness at the Haddon avenue station, but at the City Hall the physician pronounced the case to be heat dementia. Mitchell was much improved last night, but still raves and imagines strange things. He lives at 40 Spring street, Germantown.
Turned on the Gas and Died (The Philadelphia Times. August 7, 1901)
John W. Robinson, 43 years old, 3905 Ridge avenue, Falls of Schuylkill, committed suicide at his home yesterday by inhaling illuminating gas. He had been employed as a fireman in the Queen Lane pumping station, but resigned Saturday, giving as a reason his intention to leave the city. Tuesday night he returned home in an intoxicated condition.
Early yesterday morning George Nagle, a butcher, of 3416 Clearfield street, while passing, detected the odor of escaping gas, and alarmed the inmates of the house. Its source was traced to the second story front room, the door to which was locked. Nagle broke open the door and found Robinson’s lifeless body on a bed. Gas was escaping from four jets. Dr. Eli S. Beary, 128 Queen lane, who was called in, said that life had been extinct for several hours.
Robinson had been drinking heavily of late, and was prostrated by the heat two weeks ago. It is thought that his mind was temporarily affected.
Finally, we’re not sure if this last report is officially “heat dementia” or just “boys being boys,” but it’s pretty funny all the same. From an article titled Swimming and Exposure in the Philadelphia Public Ledger July 13, 1854:
Daniel Doran, Wm. Cavill and Etham Fulch, were yesterday brought before Alderman Butler by the police officers of Spring Garden, and two of them fined for swimming in the Schuylkill above Fairmount, and the other bound over to court for exposure of person. The officers are determined to abate this nuisance, which is particularly annoying to the passengers on board the Schuylkill steamboats.
Let’s hope the cops got that one covered. 🤭🍑🍑
🐶 Canine Coping Tips for Dog Days 🐶
Speaking of dogs and heat, here are some tips for walking your pup during the Dog Days:
- Time your walks: Try to walk your dog during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening, when temperatures are lower. Avoid walking during the hottest hours, typically between 10 AM and 4PM.
- Check the pavement temperature: Before heading out, touch the pavement with your hand. If it’s too hot for your hand, it’s too hot for your dog’s paws. Hot pavement can cause burns and discomfort, so opt for grassy areas or use protective booties.
- Hydration is key: Ensure your dog has access to fresh water before, during, and after the walk. Carry a portable water bowl and offer frequent water breaks. Consider bringing a water bottle specifically designed for dogs.
- Take breaks in shaded areas: Find shady spots along the walking route and take breaks to allow your dog to rest and cool down. Shade provides relief from direct sunlight and helps prevent overheating.
- Watch for signs of overheating: Excessive panting, drooling, lethargy, or difficulty walking are all red flags. If you notice any of these signs, find a cool area, provide water, and consider contacting a veterinarian if the symptoms persist.
- Keep walks shorter: Adjust the duration and intensity of your walks during hot weather. Shorten the distance and take it at a slower pace to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion, which can be very dangerous.
- Protect against the sun: Just like humans, dogs can get sunburned. Consider applying pet-safe sunscreen on exposed areas, especially if your dog has thin fur or light-colored coat.
- Avoid crowded areas: In hot weather, it’s best to avoid crowded places like dog parks or busy streets. This reduces the risk of your dog overheating due to excessive activity and limited access to shade.
Don’t take chances! Our pets look to us to keep them safe and healthy — if it’s too hot to walk or play outside, there are lots of ways to burn off energy indoors.
Try hiding treats in different rooms, and your dog will run to find them. Arrange a play date with a friend’s or family member’s dog. There are lots of toys engineered for household fun, from tuggies to brain teasers, and there’s even fitness routines where owners can work out with their dogs! Nose work, agility, and fly ball are also great exercise that can be practiced in air-conditioned facilities — check with local dog trainers for classes near you.
PRO TIP: Philly maintains a special “Heatline” you can call for information, safety tips, and even medical advice from health department nurses. Call 215-765-9040 (if someone’s in crisis, call 911). The city also has a “code red” program for unhoused people and animals which offers a shelter spot during these heat emergencies (215) 232-1984
Stay cool while that big dog is in the sky! Got any tips for beating the heat? Please share in the comments below.