4 ways to keep your dog happy and healthy in the desert

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The southwest USA is a place of extremes that often complicates dog ownership.

In other areas of the country, you can let your doggo do its thing without much to stress about. But here in the desert, many things will attack, poison, stick, or otherwise injure your pet.

Some dangers, like rattlesnakes, are obvious. Others, however, aren’t as well-known or as often considered.

In this post, we’re sharing 4 things to be aware of to help you keep your dog happy and healthy in the desert.

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1. Use a Flashlight at Night

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone walking their dog in the desert at night without a flashlight, I could take you to Taco Bell for a Mexican Pizza. (If they’re back again. Are they back again? Taco Bell, stop playing with our emotions! 😭🌮)

You want to see the stars. A flashlight is another thing to carry. You think the moonlight is enough to help you spot danger. You forgot your flashlight and going back to get it is a pain. I get it, and all those things are understandable.

But many people underestimate how dark it is in the desert. And what’s out there lurking in the dark.

Cactus spines puncture paws and stick in curious noses. Sonoran Desert toads are active during monsoon, and their toxins can be deadly to your pet. Rattlesnakes are active all year round, and in the hottest months of the year they often come out at night.

You want to see these things before your dog tangles with them! So do your best not to walk at night without a flashlight.

Need a flashlight that fits in your pocket and puts out a lot of light? We have a suggestion!

2. Pay Attention to Your Surroundings

The desert is not a place to walk your dog while reading a book or catching up on your Facebook feed.

Danger is present in both the air and on the ground, so paying attention to where you and your dog are walking is a must.

Here are some of the most common sources of injury you may encounter when you’re in the desert with your dog.


rattlesnake in tucson
This small rattlesnake was coiled up in some gravel near a high-traffic dog walking area at an RV park in Tucson

The biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen turned around and went the other way when it saw me. In my experience, snakes want nothing to do with humans and will avoid you.

But if startled or provoked, snakes will defend themselves. And thanks to their excellent camouflage, it’s easy to miss them until it’s too late.

Not paying attention to where your dog is sniffing could earn you a one-way ticket to the emergency vet. And a hefty medical bill for rattlesnake bite treatment.

You may think a rattlesnake’s rattle is a warning you can depend on. But all snakes are different, and not every rattlesnake will rattle before it strikes.

You might believe you can let your guard down in winter. But rattlesnakes are active all year in the southwest and may be out and about on sunny, warm winter days.

The best way to prevent rattlesnake bites is to always keep your dog on a leash and pay attention to the ground. Don’t let your dog’s natural curiosity get it into trouble.

If you see a snake, leave it alone. There’s no good reason to put yourself or your pet in harm’s way by attempting to kill or remove snakes.

They usually move on their own if left alone. But if you need a snake to move immediately, you can encourage them from a safe distance with water from a garden hose.

Snakes are misunderstood, feared, and maligned in many cultures. Yet, they’re an important part of the environment and are useful for pest control. We’re in their territory, and we should learn to live with them, not destroy every snake we see because we refuse to understand their behavior.

If you plan to spend time with your dog where rattlesnakes live, avoidance training may be an option for you.

Have a look at this article for more information on the training and how to find a course.


collared peccary walking in a park in tucson
A javelina walking down a path at a popular park in Tucson

Javelina are peccaries with hooves, a snout, large canine teeth, and coarse hair.

They aren’t pigs, but some call javelina “skunk pigs” thanks to a gland on their butt that smells skunky. Many times, you’ll smell javelina before you see them.

They can be between 40-60 pounds, and found in groups of 2 to 20+ animals. Javelina are common in the southwest USA, and are most active at night.

They often target plants in people’s yards, Halloween pumpkins, and unsecured trash cans. This is usually how you’ll come in contact with them as you walk your dog in neighborhoods and on streets.

The natural predators of javelina are coyotes. Javelina have poor eyesight, and they can’t tell the difference between your dog and a coyote.

Javelina are extra AF about their babies and will defend them aggressively. The best thing to do if you see a group of javelina while walking your dog is to turn around immediately.

Here’s more information on how to live with javelina from the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

Sonoran Desert Toads

sonoran desert toad
A Sonoran Desert toad chillin’ under my parked car

The largest amphibian in the southwest USA, Sonoran Desert toads are active in summer. You usually start seeing them after the first monsoon rain. And they aren’t shy about hanging out on sidewalks.

These nocturnal toads are known for having glands that secrete hallucinogenic toxins. And they’re a disaster waiting to happen for your dog.

Animals that disturb toads are poisoned through the eyes, nose, and mouth. The toad’s toxins cause several symptoms in dogs. From excessive salivation, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, confusion, and many more.

If your pup messes with the Sonoran Desert’s best impression of Jabba the Hutt, rinse its mouth with water. And seek veterinary care immediately.

Here’s a helpful resource on Sonoran Desert toads and dogs, including some tips on avoidance training and how to find classes near you.

Cholla Cacti

My last super fun encounter with cholla. You don’t want this stuff in your dog’s paws, face, or fur!

Cholla, or “jumping cholla,” is a species of cacti abundant in the southwest USA. The spines stick enthusiastically to clothing, shoes, skin, and fur. They seem to “jump” on you from out of nowhere.

Cholla spines are painful and a real challenge to remove without a comb or a trusty set of tweezers. Attempting to pull them out with anything else makes them stick more. I’ve tried removing them from shoes with my fingers, only to find they then stick in my hand.

These cacti are a problem when you brush up against one. Or step on a wayward piece that fell from the cactus and blew into walking areas by wind.

Avoid a cholla encounter by spotting them before you step on one. I knock them out of walking areas with my flashlight, as they have trouble sticking to metal.

Here’s some helpful information on what to do if your pet gets cactus spines in its paws.

3. Be Mindful of the Surfaces Your Dog Walks On

The desert is like that level of Super Mario Bros 3 where the sun yeets outta the sky and tries to eat your face.

The sun causes surfaces to get hot enough to burn your dog’s paws. Even things that seem safe, like light-colored gravel, can reach temperatures of well past 100 degrees.

A rule to follow is if you can’t keep the back of your hand on a road or sidewalk for 10 seconds, it’s too hot for your dog to walk on.

On hot days, it’s best to walk your dog early in the morning when the sun hasn’t had a chance to laser the ground. Or at night, when the sun has gone down and surfaces have released some heat.

Walking on grass or dirt is usually a safe option. But if those surfaces aren’t available, protective boots or paw wax may be an option for protecting your dog’s paws.

4. Be Aware of Signs of Heat Exhaustion

bud in the shade
Giving our friend’s dog, Bud, a break in the shade

Dogs are more sensitive to heat than humans, and they cool down by panting, resting, and drinking water.

These things aren’t always efficient methods of cooling down in the desert heat. And dogs can quickly become victims of heat exhaustion if not given a break from hot temperatures.

What’s Heat Exhaustion?

A normal temperature in dogs is 101.5 °F, give or take a degree above or below. Heat exhaustion happens when your dog’s temperature rises above normal, and they can no longer regulate their body heat with their usual heat dissipation methods.

How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion

Don’t leave your dog in a parked car unattended. It doesn’t have to be hot outside for a parked car to reach high temperatures. Even with windows cracked, cars get too hot for your dog.

If possible, travel with a friend or relative that can stay in the car with your doggo. Leave the car running with the air conditioning on. If you’re unable to provide air conditioning for your pup in the car, leaving them at home may be a better option.

Offer your dog water regularly. Make sure your dog has access to fresh water indoors, outdoors, and on the go. We like these collapsible bowls for offering water when we’re out and about with a dog.

Know your dog and plan accordingly. Dogs with long hair, older dogs, and dogs with breathing issues can be especially heat sensitive. If your dog ticks any of these boxes, monitor them closely and have a plan for keeping them cool.

Spotting the Signs of Heat Exhaustion in Your Dog

If you’re hot, your dog is too! Watch for these common signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Lethargy
  • Warm to the touch
  • Vomiting
  • Dry nose
  • Excessive panting
  • Drooling
  • Shivering or shaking

There are many ways dogs can exhibit symptoms of heat exhaustion. If your dog is acting ill or out of character, give them a break from the heat and let them cool down.

What to Do if You Think Your Dog Has Heat Exhaustion

If your dog shows signs of heat exhaustion, suspend their activities and take them to a cool space with good air circulation.

Wet your dog down with cool, not cold water. Rapid cooling can be as harmful to your dog as being too hot, so don’t use cold water or ice.

If you’re unable to check your dog’s temperature and their symptoms don’t improve, get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Let’s Review

The desert can be a fun, beautiful place to enjoy with pets. Knowing how to keep your dog safe from harmful plants, animals, and heat will ensure you enjoy your time together.

We hope this post was helpful in letting you know what to expect when you bring your pup to the desert.

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