Expert warns against leaving pets in hot cars

Animal control supervisor gives advice on how to help animals in trouble

Once the temperature reaches 70 degrees outside, it becomes dangerous to leave a dog in a car unattended.
Photo from Getty Images

As temperatures rise throughout the summer, animal lovers may grow more concerned when they see a dog alone in a parked car.

But what are the rules around leaving dogs in cars, and what can happen if a dog is left in a hot car for too long?

JJ Swirka, animal control supervisor at Summit County Animal Control and Shelter, said once it reaches 70 degrees outside, it becomes dangerous for a dog to stay in a car in direct sunlight. When a dog suffers from heat stroke, it can lead to organ failure and death.

“The best way to think about it is if you can shut off your vehicle and sit in there for 20, 25 minutes at a time in the conditions that you are leaving your vehicle in you might be OK,” Swirka said. “But the day heats up as we go on; it’s going to be the hottest in the afternoon.”

Swirka said direct sunlight will make the car heat up even faster, and whether or not there is wind has an impact on car temperatures, as well.

According to Canine Campus in Colorado Springs, when it’s 70 degrees outside the inside temperature of a car can get to 89 degrees in 10 minutes and 104 degrees in 30 minutes. As outside temperatures increase, car interiors get hotter faster.

Typically, Swirka said her team responds to calls about dogs locked in cars in parking lots or trailheads in the summer and at ski areas in the winter. She said the animal shelter receives these calls several times a week during the summer.

This summer, with temperatures sometimes reaching into the 80s, Swirka said they have received more calls than usual. She added that with widespread housing issues, animal control is seeing more workers leaving their animals in their vehicles during the work day as well.

When responding to a call about a dog locked in a hot car, Swirka said the first step is to see if a dog is showing any signs of distress: panting, barking, anxiety or anything else out of the ordinary. Next, the responder checks to see if there are any windows open or if the dog has ventilation and water.

Swirka’s department also has a laser thermometer that can tell the temperature of a surface, so if a window is slightly opened in a car they can measure close to the exact temperature of the area where the dog is resting.

Swirka said individuals who leave dogs in hot cars unattended can be criminally cited, and if the dog appears to be in enough danger, it can be removed from the car, taken to a vet to be assessed and then impounded.

In 2017, Colorado passed a new law related to the issue after dogs were repeatedly dying in hot cars over the summer. The law grants immunity for passersby who provide assistance to a dog in distress in a locked car, under certain conditions. An individual must have reasonable belief that the dog might die, and they must make a reasonable attempt to contact the owner and call 911 before breaking into the car.

Swirka said she encourages anyone who sees a dog in a hot car to call the nonemergency dispatch line at 970-668-8600, and someone would respond to assess the situation.

“I don’t want people to be afraid to call and report because it can be a dangerous situation quickly,” Swirka said. “I think people should just call if they have a concern. … You might have saved that animal’s life if it is one of those instances where the animals are going to be in that vehicle for a long time during a hot day.”

Swirka also encouraged folks to look into alternate options, such as pet day cares or sitters, since it can be so dangerous to leave a dog unattended in a vehicle.

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