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The Fresh Life: Explaining 'Dog Days'

by on August 06, 2012 6:01 AM

In Central Pennsylvania, we are lucky enough to enjoy four seasons.

Fall, with its beautiful array of colors and crisp cool nights, winter, with its barren, cold and snowy days. Spring, which offers often sprinkles of rain that help the trees and flowers bloom and the warmest of the four seasons, summer.

Summer offers an escape from the cold with temperatures ranging from the mid 70s up to 100 degrees. For approximately two months people rely on air conditioners, swimming pools, and cool treats like ice cream, to keep them cool. These days are informally called the Dog Days of Summer.

“The Old Farmer's Almanac” lists the traditional period of the Dog Days as the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending Aug. 11.

Most people, when asked, believe the phrase dog days “refers to the laziness of dogs, which become quickly overheated during these hottest days of the summer.” When speaking of “Dog Days” there seems to be a vision dogs sprawled out on cool surfaces or “dogging” around.

The saying “dog tired” can also be associated with these hot days where dogs and humans alike, become weak in the hot and humid summer heat. A similar thought believes the time is so-named because rabid dogs and animals are more commonly seen during this this time. While all of these reasons sound like plausible possibilities for calling this time the “Dog Days,” they are actually far from the truth.

The simple name actually comes from the ancient Roman belief that Sirius, also called the Dog Star, which is in close proximity to the sun and was responsible for the hot weather.

The Romans referred to the Dog Days as diēs caniculārēs and considered Sirius to be the “Dog Star” because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major or (Large Dog). Against better modern practices, the Romans often sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot and sultry weather, evil behaviors, and strange happenings during this time.

According to Brady’s Clavis Calendaria in 1813, “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.” The modern French term for both this summer period, and for heat waves in general, is called “canicule,” which derives from this same term meaning “little dog,” again referring to Sirius.

Although the time does not refer to actual dogs, during this time of increased heat a variety of health risks may arise for pets. Unlike humans, cats and dogs primarily expel heat through their respiratory tract, consisting of the trachea, lungs and skin. They actually lack the ability to sweat. Therefore, acclimating to the hot and/or humid climates during this time is more challenging to our feline and canine companions.

In warmer temperatures, adjust your home and car climate to better suit your pet's needs. Provide air conditioning and well circulated air to keep your pet cool both indoors and during vehicular travel.

During these hot, humid, and sultry days of summer, remember, we’ve been waiting to enjoy the warmth outside. If the heat is truly unbearable, go to the movies to watch the upcoming, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid-Dog Days” or stay at home in the air and listen to the music group, Florence and the Machine’s 2008 single “The Dog Days Are Over.”

One can also stay inside and read a good book. In the prologue of “Tuck Everlasting,” which set in the first week of August, the script reads: "These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”

Whatever you do, make the best of these hot days and remember the real reason for why these few months are called the Dog Days.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.
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