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Why Are People Still Leaving Dogs in Hot Cars and What to Do if You See One Suffering

02 August 2016

UK - Hundreds of dogs needlessly die each year by being left in cars during hot weather. We all know we shouldn't do it, yet many still think that leaving the dog in the car as they nip to the shops is OK, but even this short amount of time is enough for a dog to die.

Is it ignorance? Is it because some dog owners think it just won’t happen to their dog? Perhaps they think that because they’re only popping into the shops for a few minutes, it’s OK. But it’s not.

Here are the effects leaving a dog in a hot car can have and what you should do if you see a trapped dog. Ignitionline also spoke with vet and animal welfare campaigner Marc Abraham for his advice on the topic.

Why can’t you leave a dog in a hot car?

When we get hot, we sweat. That’s our body’s way of attempting to lower its temperature. But dogs can’t sweat in the same way we do. In fact, they can barely sweat at all.

They can only sweat a very small amount through the pads on their paws, so the primary way they try and cool down is by panting. They can also lose heat slightly through the moisture on their nose.

If they can’t cool down fast enough, then they can develop heatstroke, and this can happen very quickly, literally within a few minutes.

If you’ve ever had heatstroke then you’ll know it’s not particularly nice, but the effects are even worse for dogs. As they start to feel the effects of the heat, dogs will start to pant excessively as they try to desperately lower their body temperature.

However, as Marc points out, the effects can get dramatically worse: “Their bodies literally go into meltdown. They go into a coma, have seizures and often inevitably die. And they die very quickly because they go into organ failure. It’s incredibly sad.

“And then you get this sort of vicious circle. As the dog gets hot it pants more, generating more heat and energy, so it actually speeds up the temperature inside the car even more. The golden rule is just don’t do it.”

They can also develop diarrhoea which can include their stomach lining, and some vets, having performed autopsies on dogs that have died in such a fashion, have described their organs as “soupy”. It sounds horrendous, and that’s because it is.

The long and short of it is that a dog can die in less than 15 minutes of being left in a hot car. And sometimes it can be even less than that.

Some dogs are more susceptible to heatstroke than others, such as older dogs and those on medication. Brachycephalic (short nosed) dogs, such as pugs, are also in greater danger as they have a smaller surface area on their nose through which to lose heat.

On a different, but related, note, Marc also warned against leaving dogs in the car for another reason - theft.

“There’s a hell of a lot of dog theft happening at the moment,” he remarked. “It’s just so easy for someone to walk past a car, smash the window and grab the dog before anyone’s noticed.”

How hot can a car get?

So just how hot can a car get when it’s hot. Well, ‘very’ is the short answer, but if we dig a little deeper into the reality, it’s really quite shocking. 

The average temperature in the UK is around 19 degrees celsius, and after just half an hour, the temperature inside the car can reach a sweltering 38 degrees. In the summer, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach 30 degrees celsius, which means the temperature inside the car could be over 50°C. Just to put that into perspective, the average temperature of Death Valley and the Sahara Desert is around 40°C.

As Marc succinctly puts it: “In a matter of moments, your car can become an oven and your dog will start to cook.”

Some people think that leaving a window slightly open or parking in the shade can mitigate the effects, but in reality it has very little difference to the temperature in the car, and will still more than likely lead to heatstroke.

What to do if you see a dog trapped in a hot car

So you’re walking down the road on a summer’s day and you see a dog locked in a car. What should you do?

Well you obviously need to try and get the dog out as soon as possible, so try and locate the owner if they’re nearby. This could involve shouting for help or nipping into nearby shops to see if the owner is around. You could even ask the shops to put an announcement out over the speakers.

Your next step should be to call the police. You could also call the RSPCA (or animal control if you’re in the US), but their advice is to call the police as they’re likely to be able to get there a lot quicker. You should then stay with the dog until help arrives.

Should you break into the car?

Now this is a somewhat thorny issue. If you see a clearly distressed dog in a car and the owners are nowhere to be found, it may well be tempting to smash the window to free it.

However, this could actually be classed as criminal damage unless the owners agree it was necessary under the circumstances. That’s a decision you’d have to make, but if you do decide to smash the window, make sure you call the police beforehand and inform them of the issue, and get photo or video evidence of the dog in distress.

Marc seems to be in no doubt about what he would do in such a situation: “If the dog is in real distress, then the temptation is to smash the window, and if it’s life or death and done properly then that’s the only option. I think most people would rather live with the consequences than see a dog die.”

He also hopes that this itself would act as some kind of deterrent for dog owners: “People these days are a lot more vigilante than they used to be, so if they see a dog in your car, they’ll just smash the window or report you to the police.

“Whilst it’s not an actual offence in itself to leave a dog in a hot car, it goes against the animal welfare act if the conditions promote heatstroke as the animal isn’t free from suffering.”

How to treat a dog suffering from heatstroke

So you’ve managed to free a dog from a hot car in way or another, but how should you treat it if it’s suffering from heatstroke. Here are a few basic first aid tips that should help:

  • Move the dog to a shaded/cool area.
  • Pour small amounts of room temperature water onto the dog’s body. If the water is too cold, the dog could go into shock.
  • If possible, use wet towels or a fan to cool the dog down.
  • Allow the dog to drink small amounts of cool water. Do not pour the water in the dog’s mouth.
  • The dog should be then taken to the vet to be checked over, even if it appears to have returned to normal.

Dogs Die In Hot CarsPlease include attribution to Ignitionline with this graphic.

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