Why Dogs in Hot Cars Isn’t Just a Summer Issue

By PetMD Editorial on Sep. 4, 2018

Image via Phongsak Meedaenphai/Shutterstock.com

By LisaBeth Weber

It seems obvious—don’t leave dogs in hot cars. Yet we continue to hear tragic and heartbreaking stories.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t realize how rapidly a car can heat up inside, even when the temperature outside isn’t that high. Veterinarian Dr. Douglas Mader, MS, DVM, DABVP (C/F) from Marathon Veterinary Hospital in the Florida Keys knows something about how hot a car can get.

Writing on the topic for the Key West Citizen newspaper, Dr. Mader says, “A dog can go into heat stress in a matter of minutes. On a 75 degree day, the inside of a car can reach 100 degrees in 10 minutes. On a 100 degree day, [it can reach] 140 degrees in as little as 15 minutes. It can take less than 15 minutes for permanent brain damage to occur, and death shortly afterwards.”

And it’s not just summertime that calls for concern. Depending on the climate, season and geographical location, you can be caught off guard very quickly by thinking it won’t get too hot.

Trouble often strikes when someone thinks it’s okay when it is shady enough or when the windows are cracked. Not so. In fact, a pet peeve that Dr. Mader has is when dogs are left in cars that are running with the air conditioning on. 

This may be legal, but it is not smart. Dr. Mader says, “What if the car stalls? Also, leaving a car running in a parking lot is an invitation for it to be stolen—possibly with the pet inside.”

Remind yourself and others to be hyperaware of dog safety when it comes to hot cars.

What Can You Do for Dogs in Hot Cars?

If you see a dog in a hot car, time is of the essence, but think before you act. Dr. Mader has some great tips:

  • First call 911 or Animal Control.
  • If the location is near a store, go inside and ask to have the owner paged, and then return to the car.
  • Take a picture of the car and license plate to give to authorities if the owner drives away.

Dr. Mader emphasizes to never leave the dog unattended, and adds, “If you feel it’s warranted and are willing to accept the consequences, it may be necessary in a desperate situation to break the window. However, it would be better to have the authorities do that.”

If you suspect a dog is suffering from heatstroke, move them to a cooler place immediately if possible. Dr. Mader says to hose them off with cool, but not cold water. Put rubbing alcohol on their ears and paw pads. Bring the dog to a veterinarian right away.

Raising Awareness About Dog Safety in Cars

National animal welfare organization Best Friends Animal Society has been a leading advocate for educating the public on this dog safety issue. Temma Martin, public relations specialist at Best Friends, shares this important information from the organization:

  • Look for signs of heatstroke, which include heavy panting that does not resolve as the pet rests, increasing distress, a tongue color that is dark red to almost purple, weakness or collapse, hyper-salivation, vomiting and labored breathing.
  • Once a dog is cooled down, get them to a vet as quickly as possible, even if they seem to be cooling down and their temperature seems normal. Things may be happening inside that are not obvious from the outside.
  • Never leave your pet in a parked car when the outside temperature is above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Not even with the windows partway down, even in the shade, even for a quick errand. Dogs and cats can’t sweat like humans, so they pant to lower their body temperature. If they’re inside a car, recycling hot air, heatstroke can happen quickly.
  • Provide pets with fresh, cool water at all times. If there’s a water source on your route, use collapsible dog travel bowls. During the heat of summer, water should be dumped and refilled often. Most dogs won’t drink hot water no matter how thirsty they are.

What You Can Do to Help

Be on the lookout for dogs in hot cars and other situations that compromise dog safety. It is also important to know the laws. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, laws vary from state to state and even within city and county ordinances. This makes it very difficult to paint a broad brush on the subject, but Michigan State University’s College of Law - Animal Legal and Historical Center has compiled a state-by-state guide of laws currently on the books.

As of this writing, only a limited number of states have specific laws dealing with the protection of dogs, though it can be argued that general anti-cruelty laws would safeguard dogs in the other states.

Only 11 states have laws that directly deal with people breaking car windows to save dogs in hot cars. But, there is a lot that concerned citizens can do. From sharing helpful information through social media to contacting your legislators, citizen activists can help advance the laws even more. In fact, they have already done so, as more states and municipalities pass laws about dog safety.

There are plenty of resources available for sharing, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund pamphlets. Ask your vet if they can post alerts on social media if they’re not already, and offer to help spread the word. This allows you to make an impact locally and nationally to improve the situation and save dogs’ lives.

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