When is it OK to take your dog along for a ride?
Like you, we think dogs are cool! And one of the things that make dogs cool is the ability to take them along with us on out-of-home adventures. For rides in the car, for hikes in the woods, and even out for a beer at a dog-friendly restaurant or pub patio (only if the dog is not drinking the beer!).
But when is it OK to leave your dog in the car while you run into a store for a few minutes? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question.
Before we attempt to answer that expensive question – one that we don’t take lightly as it can cost your dog his or her life! – let’s step back and think of the big picture. Most of us consider our dog to be a member of our family, usually as our four-legged child. So the first thing we’d say, is to put that front and center. Think of your dog AS your child… if you wouldn’t leave a four-year-old child unattended in a car – don’t leave your dog!
Really, that should be the end of this discussion. But as we know, children are left to suffer and die in hot cars as well – around 40 a year die this way – so sadly, not everyone is truly aware of the dangers or understands the risks.
We also know that people are looking for a definitive temperature or a specific situation when its OK to leave their dog in parked car. We constantly get this question. So we’ll start with five definitive answers:
- Leaving the windows open is NOT the answer. Cracking the windows doesn’t help stop a car from heating up. Rolling windows all the way down isn’t safe for dogs that may jump out or for people who may reach in. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), leaving windows slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate inside a parked vehicle. And a paper in the journal Pediatrics came to the same conclusion, showing that cars with the windows cracked still reached the SAME temperature as those with the windows closed.
- Parking in the shade is NOT the answer. Sure, parking in the shade is a little cooler and doing so may buy your a few more minutes, slowing down the speed of the heat increasing in the car. However, dogs can’t sweat and it only takes minutes for a dog to suffer heatstroke or death because the heat still increases and a car parked in the shade can still turn into an oven. And don’t forget that we’re on an Earth that rotates at a pretty impressive clip. The Earth is traveling at 66,600 mph around the sun and it is also spinning at the equator at an additional 1,000 miles-per-hour. Where your car was at one time parked in the shade, it can quickly become parked in full sun.
- Leaving water for the dog is NOT the answer. Keeping a dog hydrated is not a preventative to heatstroke. For one thing, just because you leave water doesn’t mean the dog is going to drink it or not spill it. Not to mention that the water will heat up in the car as well. Have you ever tried to drink 90-degree water out of the garden hose on a hot summer day? One sip and you won’t drink any more.
- Combining all three – windows cracked, parking in the shade and leaving a bowl of water – is NOT the answer. Even when you put all three together, you’ve still got a recipe for potential suffering and death. There are also many other variables like the type of car and dog; his or her size, age, breed, health, stress level, etc. “The temperature in a parked car, even in the shade with windows partly open, can rapidly reach a level that will seriously harm or even kill a pet,” said BC SPCA general manager of community relations Lorie Chortyk, noting that leaving pets in a hot car for even 10 minutes can be fatal. Which is why we ask you to think, “Would you put your four-year-old child in this same situation?”
- Leaving the air condition running is NOT the answer. One look through stories of dogs dying in hot cars will turn up a number of dogs who died in the car after their guardian left the air conditioning running. Like dogs, cars can overheat quickly. This results in the air system’s compressor turning off because the engine got too hot – or worse – the air conditioning stops working and starts blowing out hot air, cooking your dog even quicker. This is a set-up that we get a lot of people defending, saying they do it “all the time” and everything is fine. Until it’s not. And your dog is dead. Just ask the North Carolina couple who lost two of their beloved dogs, and nearly lost their third dog, as result of the above A/C failure. They had left bowls of water and ice in the car, and the air-conditioning on, during their shopping trip of less than 30 minutes. Or talk to the K9 officer who cooked his dog in his hot patrol car when he left the air conditioning running. He is devastated. His partner is dead because he decided to play Russian roulette with a dog in a parked car. We ask you again, would you leave your four-year-old child in this situation?
So what CAN you do?
Travel with another human companion! One of you runs into the store and one of you stays with the dog. Remember in this case that humans can take the heat better than dogs. What might feel tolerable to you might be dangerous to a dog that cannot sweat or let you know how they’re feeling. Many parking lots contain a couple small patches of grass with a tree. Get out of the car and sit with the dog and a bowl of water under a tree. And what dog wouldn’t appreciate being able to smell a new tree?!
Only take your dog along when you are only going to places you KNOW dogs can come with you. Most pet-supply stores allow dogs inside. Many restaurants and pubs have dog-friendly patios. Hotels and motels, even some national chains, allow people to stay over night with their pets. But remember, even places you think may be dog friendly are not. Some trails and campgrounds are off limits to dogs. When in doubt, call ahead. There are many books and websites devoted to dog-friendly facilities and travel destinations that can help.
Allow us a little rant here: We are so sick and tired of hearing stories of dogs being removed from or dying in hot cars in the parking lots of malls, concerts, movie theaters, casinos, fairs, amusement parks and even water parks! These are obviously not places people go to for a “few minutes” or places that allow dogs. So why, oh why, do people insist on taking their dogs to places like this only to leave them in the car?! These kind of actions are sooo NOT cool!
And don’t forget about the law. If you are one of those few people who don’t consider your dog a member of your family and don’t care about putting them in harm’s way, then think about yourself (and consider re-homing your dog to someone who does care!). You can face fines and jail time for leaving your dog in a hot car. Leaving an animal in a hot car is “specifically” against the law in only 15 states. However, that doesn’t mean that you still can’t get tossed in jail or face fines up to $10,000. There are animal cruelty laws in all 52 states. Just look up a few incidents and you’ll read about the number of times where officers rescued a dog from a hot car and then arrested the “owner” as soon as he or she showed up. And if you don’t think that leaving a dog baking in a hot car isn’t cruel, think again!
So what about that temperature? At what temperature is it OK to leave your dog in a parked car? Unfortunately, this is a case when there really is no such thing as a definitive answer. There are too many variables and each situation is totally unique.
As you must know, the temperature throughout a day is not static – it is constantly changing. It’s not unheard of for the temperatures to change 20 or 30 degrees throughout the day. Changes have been recorded throughout the United States changing over 50 degrees in a matter of hours, with a record set at an 80 degree change in on day! Also temperatures in your city are not the same as the city next door – or even the next neighborhood where the store is located. You may leave your house with a reading of 70 degrees (21 Celsius) only to dive a few miles and see the temperature reading on a bank sign at 15 degrees higher. And remember that is the outside temperature. The inside of your parked car can rise 30 degrees in 20 minutes – all before you can grab some groceries, stand in line to pay and return to the car. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, outside temperatures in the 60s can still cause a car temperature to rise well above 110 degrees (43 Celsius). Would you leave your four-year old child in this situation?
And now for your science lesson. The greenhouse effect (which is the main cause for heating up a car) and humidity also come into play. The car windows let the shorter waves of sunshine (or solar energy) pass through, getting absorbed and heating up the objects in the car’s interior. When the surfaces of the car’s interior heats up, they produce long-wave infrared radiation. Now the glass in the car’s windows begins to act as a kind of one-way mirror. Short-wave solar energy continues to enter with no problem, but much of the long-wave infrared radiation (heat) is blocked and prevented from leaving, bouncing around and heating up the car much warmer then the outside temperature, in a very short time. And we all know how humidity can make the air hotter than it actually is. Just listen to any weather report in one of our more humid states; they’ll report the temperature and then say “…but with the humidity it feels like…” and report a hotter temperature. In a hot car, the humidity goes up with the temperature and the rising humidity makes it not only feel hotter, but makes it harder for the dog to properly cool his or herself.
The size and temperament of your dog can factor in as well. A larger dog, just by volume, can make the car heat up faster. The hotter a dog gets, the more heat he or she radiates into the small space of an enclosed car. And when a dog gets into danger, they start to panic. A more stressful dog may panic sooner, but even the most the most mellow dog will aggressively react to being cooked to death with panic. As panic sets in, incessant barking or scratching will use up energy and heat up the dogs’ body temperature even more.
Dog’s can’t sweat over their entire body like we can. Dog’s sweat glands are located around the nose and foot pads. However, these glands aren’t producing sweat to cool off (like humans), they’re producing secretions to producing scents for recognition by other dogs and for use in scent-marking of territory. A remember, what makes us cool when we sweat is the evaporation of the perspiration from our skin. Secretions evaporating from the paws or nose are not going to cool off a dog. Also, imagine how useless this is when standing on sweltering hot car seats.
Then there’s panting, a dog’s main form of cooling off, which is not very efficient and can actually add to the heat in the car. That’s because the dog’s body heat and expired air in the dog’s breath – which is normally about 102 degrees (39 Celsius) and has 100% humidity – will act like a heater inside the enclosed space of a car. Additionally, panting, especially when in distress, is a rather physical activity and as an animal overheats they pant harder, creating more activity that only further raises their temperature and generates more heat inside the car.
And what about your dog, specifically? Their health, age, weight, acclimation to heat/cold, etc. can all factor into the temperature and amount of time a dog can stand to be in a hot car at a specific temperature (not to mention the size of the car itself). Even though short faced (brachycephalic) breeds such as Boxers, Pekingese, Pugs and dogs with heavy coats are at greater risk – ALL dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Dogs have an average body temperature of 101 to 102.5 degrees (38.3 to 39.2 Celsius), whereas humans’ normal body temperature is just 98.6 degrees (37 Celsius). And dogs can only take higher temperatures for a short amount of time, much shorter than adult humans can. Irreversible brain damage and organ failure can happen in a very short amount of time… shorter than it takes to run into a store for “a few minutes!” A police department reported that a dog can become overwhelmed by heat in as little as 10-minutes.
And just because you get back to your car “in time” and your dog seems to be hot, panting, but doing OK, you’re not out of the woods yet. Even if the dog does not appear to show signs externally, there may be internal damage. Complications of heat stroke can show up a few days or even weeks later as damaged organs start to expire. Additionally, dogs who suffer from heatstroke once increase their risk for getting it again.
So if you’re looking for a definitive temperature for when it’s OK to leave your dog in a parked car, you can see why you won’t find one. Because there isn’t one!
Of course there is one definitive course of action… leave your dog home safe and sound! Instead of going straight to the store after a nice hike with your dog, drop him or her off at home and then go to the store. That will be the 100% guarantee you’re looking for; that your dog will not suffer or die in a hot car.
Remember, if it’s not OK to leave your four-year-old child alone in the car, it’s not OK to leave your dog in alone in the car. Period.
Well, OK, with all the tragic stories of children being left in cars, we’ll go one step even more definitive. Would you put your four-year-old child in the oven? If not, then don’t leave your two- or four-legged child in a parked car, because it’s the same thing. PERIOD!