Dogs in hot cars can die. Most people know that. What many don’t seem to realize is that cars don’t only get hot on hot days or how fast it happens. A comfortable 75° degree day with a breeze will still result in a dangerously hot car interior within minutes. Not hours. Minutes.
There is no overstating the importance of educating people about the danger of leaving dogs in the car for even a few minutes when the weather is warm. There are no firm statistics on how many die each year because it’s very likely that most go unreported. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to guess that the number is in the thousands nationwide.
Often, the people who left a dog in a car probably gave it some thought and felt that it would be fine. Maybe they cracked the windows. Maybe they thought they’d only be two minutes picking up their prescription, but instead they ended up waiting for a mix-up to be corrected in the store or got distracted when they bumped into someone they knew inside. When it comes to humans, 54% of deaths of children in hot cars are because the caregiver said they “forgot” the child was in the car, so it’s probably safe to say that is the case with pets at times, too. Probably, people know exactly how long they will be and just underestimate how rapidly the heat rises.
A study published by Dr. Jan Null, Department of Geosciences of San Jose State University showed that on an 80° day in a very average car, a blue sedan with medium grey interior and cracked windows, the temperature inside the car rose to 123° in 60 minutes. That’s a far higher temperature than it takes to cause heat stroke. Just ten minutes results in a 19-20° spike. Her study showed that partly cloudy days and cracked windows made no significant improvement in those numbers. Still more alarming, two-thirds of the heating happened in the first 20 minutes.
In North Carolina, we have a law about the confinement of animals in motor vehicles that gives first responders, law enforcement officers, and animal control officers and investigators the legal right to use any reasonable means to get a distressed or otherwise endangered animal out of a locked car. If a dog is distressed in a hot car, they will break into the car to save the dog’s life. So if you see a pet locked in a hot car, report it! Get help.
Julie Leroy, a former animal control officer in Durham County, animal advocate and founder of Cuda Cares says, “What I recommend to people is call 911 first. I carry a laser thermometer with me. They are cheap and can be purchased at Lowe’s, Home Depot or even Harbor Freight. I take the temp of the car through the glass and take a date-stamped photo of it.
The worst thing I ever saw was a woman who was attending her son’s graduation at the School of Science and Math in Durham who arrived at 8am and kept her dachshund in a travel crate in her backseat with the windows rolled up. At noon, I got a call for a dog in a car. I arrived and the dog was deceased. A dog’s normal body temp is 99.5°-102.5°. The core temp of the dog was 117 degrees.”
But dogs in hot cars can be in distress sooner than you might be able to identify the symptoms through the windows. You should, of course, leave your own pet at home to keep him or her safe, and be prepared to call for help if you see someone else’s dog in a hot car. But it is a good idea to get familiar with the signs of heat stroke. Heat stroke is what we are trying to prevent in hot cars, but it doesn’t only happen in cars. It can happen in your back yard. Learn the signs!
Our own Dr. Olson recently wrote an article about heat stroke. “Early signs of heat stroke include increased respiratory rate, increased heart rate, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and depression. As the condition progresses, further problems such as collapse, seizures, severe respiratory distress, bloody diarrhea, and bloody vomiting develop. Unfortunately, severe heat stroke can quickly become fatal.”
How do we prevent more deaths, more suffering? Education. Share information. We all know that cars get hot in the spring and summer. We don’t all think it all the way through without something or someone triggering the thought. Have conversations about it with your friends, share our temperature chart on social media, and do it more than once.
Leroy has some advice if you do find yourself in the situation of trying to help a distressed dog in a hot car: Be cool. Be calm. Put the dog, and future dogs, first. “If the owner comes back while you are waiting, try not to get into a screaming match with them. It is easier to help the dog and educate the owner if you are letting them know your first concern was the dog. I always explained to people that I understood they wanted to take their dog with them, but the interior of a car is 20 degrees higher than the temp outside, and their dog was suffering severe heat distress. The last thing I try to think about is them having the dog removed from their ownership. There are too many dogs in shelters. I focus the person on looking at the best interest of the dog. I’ve seen too many people arguing while the dog lay on the ground not getting the help he needed. Trying to maintain calmness is the best way to educate someone. There are people from all walks of life who still do not know how a dog will suffer in a hot car. You want to prevent them from doing it again. I’ve written notices to lawyers and to people with little education. It is not demographic specific.”
Everyone can help. Let’s look at the numbers, talk about it, and save lives.