Every summer, articles appear in the news about dogs and other animals who die after being left unattended in a hot car. The images of helpless dogs collapsing from heat stroke stick in our minds and excite our anger, but people continue to risk the lives of their pets for the sake of convenience. In fact, it is easy to dismiss the behavior of other pet owners as careless or callous without fully understanding how dangerous it is to leave your animal in the car.
Quickly Rising Temperatures
Most of the incidents where a dog is left in a hot car are explained by phrases like, “I was only gone for a few minutes,” or, “I only meant to leave him for a moment.” But both studies and experience have shown a sealed car — or even a car with the windows cracked open — can reach dangerously high temperatures in a matter of minutes. This chart shows how a sealed car reached a temperature of 109 degrees (hot enough to cause heat stroke) on a morning that was only 82 degrees. This rapid increase of temperature is a result of heat from the sun entering through closed windows and then becoming trapped, as in a greenhouse.
The Dangers of Heat Stroke
Heat stroke occurs when a mammal’s body reaches 107 degrees, the temperature at which cells cease functioning properly. The cells release toxic chemicals, which eventually cause cell death. The most active cells in the body, such as brain, liver and intestinal cells, are also the most vulnerable to this process. Heat stroke also involves dehydration, which leads to thickening of the blood. As blood thickens and clots, it can lead to metabolic starvation in surrounding tissue, leading once again to cells releasing toxic chemicals and dying. Ultimately, heat stroke can lead to brain damage, organ failure and even death.
Treatment for Heat Stroke
Warning signs of heat stroke include excessive panting and/or drooling, wide eyes, staggering, weakness or loss of consciousness, and a body temperature above 105 degrees. If your dog displays these symptoms, immediately begin treatment for heat stroke by placing the dog in a tub of cool running water. Once the dog’s body temperature falls to 103 or 104 degrees, remove the dog from the water and rush him or her to the nearest animal hospital. Even if the dog appears to recover, they still need to be examined by a vet because heat stroke can lead to organ failure hours or even days later.
The risk of heat stroke is far too great to ever leave an animal unattended in a car. Even if your dog has the ingenuity to honk the horn or the good luck to be rescued, you still risk prosecution under animal cruelty charges — and worse than that, you risk your pet’s life.
Knowing the warning signs of heat stroke and how to treat it will help you keep your dog safe, but the best strategy for preventing heat stroke is not to place your dog in a dangerous situation. On hot days you should always make sure that your dog has plenty of water and a cool area to rest. And if you have to take your dog with you while running errands, tie him or her up outside or bring the dog into the store with you. By this point, you know why.
Erica Moss is the social media outreach coordinator for the Masters in Nursing online program at Georgetown University, which partners with Nursing License Map to offer nurse practitioner salary resources.
Photo credit: The Consumerist on Flickr