If you’re reading this, you’re likely a pet owner — or at least a big fan of them. If you do have a pet, it’s probably lying in the sun right now or will be soon after they cool off a bit.
My cat is black, and my dog is mostly black. Both lay in the sunniest spot they can find to the point of overheating. The cat does so outside, and the dog owns the house. Setting the issue of cancer risk for light-skinned animals aside, this sunning behavior is interesting.
When one asks people why their pets lay in the sun, most would say because it feels good. Perhaps. When I see the behavior in any animal, I always think about the precarious, fatal teeter-totter they are trying to balance, calories in with calories expended, so as to not be able to reproduce, starve and die.
Take the red-tailed hawks we all see in winter. They perch atop a single post or high promontory in a snowy field. They usually orient toward the low-on-the-horizon seasonal sun to the south. They fluff their feathers and absorb the warmth.
At the same time, they are not losing heat energy and they are conserving calories. At the same time, they are hunting, attuned to the tiniest of disturbances in their field of view that might be food. And simultaneously, they gauge wind conditions for a quick takeoff and keep an eye out for those that may prey upon them. They are by no means, “just sitting there.”
That carries over into our domestic animals too, although not to the same degree. While most pets are malnourished with an overabundance of calories, they still are hard-wired for the end of times. If my cat can save a few calories by slowing his metabolism down, and letting the sun keep his body temperature at 100 to102.5 (normal), then why not?
The animals balance this use of sunlight by moving back and forth between shade and sun. In places where temperatures run more than 90 degrees a lot and humidity is more than 90 percent, shade trees and abundant water are a necessary thing for cattle.
Cats can easily spend 15 to 20 hours a day sleeping. They’re no more lazy than the wild hawk. Metabolically, they are saving calories and optimizing their ability to sustain their existence. Some estimates are, cats spend as much as 50 percent of their calories maintaining their external anatomy, hair, skin, nails and sensory organs.
This behavior is also one of the reasons why pets will overeat if we let them. Being overweight or even obese in pets is perhaps the greatest single complicating internal medicine factor facing veterinary medicine. We are killing our pets with food because when it comes to them, we equate food with kindness. And boy howdy do they reflect that kindness right back to us, guilting us into another serving.
The fact is pets are genetically prompted to behave as they do in the event the next meal does not arrive. In that way perhaps, they might just survive until they can find another.
Dogs sleep on average 12 to 14 hours a day, cows about four hours and horses only actually sleep about three hours every day. The latter two are not sleep deprived. Their sleep is different and called polyphasic, meaning they drift in and out of their restful sleep and can doze as much as eight hours a day.
If naked, we humans start to feel cold at 77-78 degrees. With no other assistance, we’ll revert to what our animal friends do, too.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.