Warmer weather is coming, and with it will come the inevitable reports of dogs dying from heat prostration when left unattended in hot cars. But alongside those reports will be the stories of a dog owner who left their pet in a running car with the air conditioner on for less than five minutes, and came back to find a stranger breaking their window to “save” the perfectly comfortable dog. What’s the right thing to do? When is it heroic to call the police about a dog left in a car, and when is it hurting a perfectly good dog owner?
How Hot is Too Hot
If the outside temperature is above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a car left in the sun can become an oven very quickly. However, deaths have been recorded in cars when the outside temperature is as low as 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Any car left in direct sun, no matter what the ambient temperature is, may heat up very quickly. If it’s too cold for the car to overheat, it’s probably too cold to leave pets in the car! In addition, studies have shown that cracking a window doesn’t stop the car from overheating, nor does running the air conditioner before parking.
However, despite the existence of risks in even moderate temperatures, staying in a car isn’t always a death sentence for pets. Parking in shade in temperatures in the mid-60s carries much less of a risk than parking in the sun in the mid-70s. Running in to a gas station for 30 seconds isn’t as likely to result in harm to a pet left in the car as going to the grocery store for half an hour. A cloudy day is less dangerous for pets left in cars than a sunny one.
When to Call the Police
If you see a pet in a hot car displaying symptoms of heat exhaustion, call the police and report it immediately. The police department may handle the matter, or they may refer you to animal control. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy panting
- Dizziness or weaving while walking
- Sudden collapse
- Gasping for air
A pet exhibiting these symptoms needs to be cooled immediately and should see a veterinarian ASAP, after emergency cooling measures have been taken to stabilize the pet long enough to reach the vet.
If you report a pet in a hot car to the police, you may be asked to make a police report or to testify in court if the owner is charged with a crime. Be aware that owners who come back to find a car window broken and their pet receiving emergency care are rarely grateful that their pet’s life has been saved. You’re likely to find an irate, defensive owner rushing toward you and shouting unfriendly things as soon as the police arrive.
If You’re Unsure
If you’re not ready to call the police, but don’t want to just leave, staying with the car and observing the pet inside until the owner returns is always an option. However, I don’t recommend waiting and confronting the owner when they do return– it’s not worth endangering yourself, especially if you’ve already ascertained that the pet survived staying in the car and the owner is leaving.