If your dog comes along everywhere you go, it’s time to rethink leaving her in the car while running errands or dashing about town. Many factors are in play when people leave dogs in cars, and the combination is nothing but dangerous for our canine companions. The heat intensity inside a vehicle, regardless of make and model, can be brutal and unrelenting. The risks to dogs and their owners are simply not worth taking, and consequences for both parties can be severe under conditions much milder than you might think.
Dogs do sweat, having a limited number of eccrine glands on their nose and paw pads. This leaves a vast amount of external and internal surface area unaccounted for. A dog’s primary defenses against heat are panting, which releases excess moisture, and, oddly enough, her coat. That may seem counterintuitive, but, especially for dogs with an undercoat, the fur provides not only warmth in winter, but also limited insulation against the sun’s rays reaching her skin.
Taking into account a number of factors, the average human body temperature is somewhere between 97.7 and 99.5 degrees F. Dogs, coming in all shapes and sizes, have just as many mitigating factors at play, so the average body temperature for a healthy adult dog ranges from 99.5 to 102.5 degrees under normal circumstances. Being left in a car, even for just a few minutes, when the sun is in its full glory is anything but normal for a dog.
Dogs regulate body heat by panting. The hotter it is, the more furiously they pant, but any relief they gain comes at the cost of body fluid and dehydration. Left in a hot car for even a few minutes, a dog may develop symptoms of non-fever hyperthermia when her body temperature hits 103 degrees F or heat stroke at 106. The longer a dog is subjected to intense heat — and it really only requires minutes — the greater the chance that it will negatively affect all of her vital systems. Senior dogs and puppies are at increased risk for multiple organ failure or death. No matter a dog’s age or health, being in a hot car is not only dangerous, but potentially deadly.
From steel and plastic to rubber, aluminum, and glass, your average motor vehicle is built from materials that trap, conduct, and distribute heat. Parking under a shady tree, using a reflective dashboard or windshield cover, or leaving the windows open only makes a marginal difference. Car interiors get very hot very quickly, leveling off as the heat is distributed throughout the vehicle. According to the American Kennel Club, the air temperature need be only between 81 and 85 degrees F for a dog to begin showing signs of heat distress.
In my hometown of Durham, North Carolina, for example, the average low temperature in July is 70 degrees F. As the sun comes up, the trouble begins. Within 10 minutes of the outside temperature reaching 80 degrees, a car interior has already gone up 19 degrees to 99, and it only gets worse from there. The average high in Durham is 89. It takes only 30 minutes of direct sun exposure for the inside of the car to reach a sweltering 123 degrees. These numbers reflect ideal circumstances — slight real-world variations, from the color of your dashboard to whether you leave your windows down or up overnight mean the actual conditions inside the car can be extreme indeed.
These numbers are startling, and, while putting a dog into a life-threatening situation may be unintentional on a dog owner’s part, in the eyes of the law, it falls under the rubric of animal neglect, abuse, and cruelty. Aside from panting and a limited ability to sweat, dogs have no practical defenses against the heat inside a car, even when it’s only 70 degrees F outside. Accordingly, in recent years, at both the local and state levels, there has been a rise in statutes, ordinances, and laws to protect dogs and other domestic pets.
As of 2014, the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State identified 16 of 50 states — Arizona, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia — as having laws against leaving pets unattended in cars. It provides us with a glance at the range of circumstances that can be considered cruel or abusive, as well as the variety of penalties that violators may incur. Depending on the state, fines range from $25 to $2,000. Penalties can include responsibility for medical treatment and boarding of a dog rescued while the owner is away. Under the severest laws, there is an additional risk of jail time.
Examining the list of state laws, which don’t include city, county, or parish statutes or ordinances, one sees that they are often purposely rendered in vague language. Some, like Minnesota‘s, directly refer to “dogs and cats,” while others, like Rhode Island‘s, extend protections to “every living creature except a human being.” The legal language is subject to interpretation, both to safeguard affected animals and to outline who is allowed to intervene and under what conditions. State laws and local statutes precisely define the types “officials and licensed volunteers” who are legally permitted to force entry into a private vehicle when a dog’s life is at risk.
Since the threshold for interior car heat is so low — even a 70 degree day can be problematic — if you see a dog left in a parked vehicle, your first course of action should always be to attempt to locate her owner. Make note of the vehicle and its license plate should legal action follow. The next step is to alert the nearest authority or official. If you feel you must intervene, it should be as a last resort, and with the understanding that you do so at your own risk. As of July 1, 2015, Tennessee is the only state that allows ordinary citizens to take direct action within reason.
Naturally, we all like to have our dogs with us wherever we go, but at the warmest times of the year, doing so directly endangers their lives. For every extraordinary Lab who honks the horn to alert others to his plight, countless others are at risk. For every concerned citizen who has charges against him dropped after saving a Yorkie, many more are fined and punished. It takes very little time for a dog left in a car to experience symptoms and effects of heat stress and heat stroke, and either of these can easily lead to hospitalization or death. During the dog days of summer, dog owners should be responsible, err on the side of caution, and leave their dogs at home.
Learn more about dogs and summer with Dogster:
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.