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A dog waits for its owner in a car in Toronto on May 9, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
A dog waits for its owner in a car in Toronto on May 9, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Driving Concerns

How long can a dog safely be left in a vehicle? Add to ...

Question: How long can you safely leave a dog in a vehicle? What if I’m going into the store for just five minutes?

Tim, Toronto

Answer: “Just five minutes” is never just five minutes. And a few extra minutes in a hot car is long enough to kill a pet, experts say.

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen a case yet where there’s been any intent of injuring their pet – it’s always something flukey, they went into the store and they got distracted,” says Dr. Nicole Gallant, president elect of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). “And the owners are just devastated – it’s never the bad owners, they usually don’t take their pets with them.”

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Pets get heatstroke much more quickly than kids because they can’t cool themselves off by sweating – they only have sweat glands on their paws and they don’t do much good on a hot car seat. “They try to cool off by panting but that’s useless when they’re panting in that hot, hot air,” Gallant says.

Hot enough to crisp bacon?

How quickly does the inside of your car heat up? On a sunny day, temperatures rise about 10C above the temperature outside within 10 minutes, San Francisco State University meteorologist Jan Null says.

After 30 minutes it’s 19C hotter in a car than it is outside.

“It’s a lot hotter than most people think,” Null says. “On a (27C) day, the dashboard can be (82C) or hotter.”

The sun’s rays heat up the surfaces. The darker the surfaces in the car, the faster they heat up. Since the heat’s coming from within the car, cracking open windows doesn’t make a significant difference.

“I’ve done tests to see what we can cook on the dash of a car,” says Brad Dewar with Ontario SPCA. “In 41 minutes, I was able to fully cook two hot dogs, get the yolk of an egg firm and start to make bacon go crispy.”

An increase in body temperature of just two or three degrees can be fatal to an animal, Dewar says. “Their average internal temperature is 38C to 39C. At 40C the animal needs to see a vet and at 41 they can get organ failure and brain damage.”

If a dog gets overheated, vets need to cool them down with ice packs and administer IV fluids. Even then, it might be too late. “Get them into air conditioning and you should call a veterinarian,” CVMA’s Gallant says. “You can tell if they’re overheated, you’ll know something’s wrong – it’s not normal panting.”

Best intentions

Is it ever okay to leave a dog in a vehicle? PETA doesn’t think so.

“If you’re just running into Starbucks and the dog is sitting outside in your car right in front of you, that’s not what we’re talking about,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice-president of cruelty investigations for PETA. “But if you’re leaving dogs unattended in a vehicle, it’s a gamble – it’s not just the heat, pets get stolen from vehicles all the time.”

If you see a pet alone in a vehicle you should call the local SPCA – in Ontario, that’s 310-SPCA (7722) – or the non-emergency number for the police, OSPCA’s Dewar says.

“You’ll need to provide the licence plate number, the colour, make and model of the vehicle and the exact location.”

If you’ve left animals unattended, you could be charged under your provincial SPCA Act and under the Criminal Code of Canada. You could face jail time, a lifetime ban on owning an animal and up to a $60,000 fine, Dewar says.

“People always say it was just for five minutes but it’s impossible for us to get a call and get our officers there in five minutes,” Dewar says.

A B.C. dog walker faces criminal charges after six dogs died of heatstroke in her vehicle in May.

Bringing Rover on the road

“When kids die in cars, it’s usually because they were in a rear-facing car seat and someone didn’t realize they were there,” says Lindsey Wolko, founder of the Centre for Pet Safety. “But with pets, people are making a conscious decision to leave them there.”

If you’re going to be driving with your pet, here are a few tips to keep them safe:

  • Don’t do errands with your pet in the car: “If you’re taking your dog to the dog park or for a car ride and you also need to stop for groceries, do it in two separate trips,” Dewar says. “Drop your dog off at home and then go get your groceries when your dog’s not with you.”
  • Eat with your pet: “If you’re out with your dog and need to eat or get a drink, use the drive-thru,” Wolko says. “Or, if you’re not alone, leave someone in the the car with your pet and take turns going in.”
  • Turn on the air-conditioner: “If you absolutely had to leave a dog or cat in a vehicle, you should have an extra set of keys so you can leave the air-conditioner on,” Gallant says. “And even then you should be checking them regularly.”
  • Don’t let pets roam: Your pet should always be in the back seat and in a crate or in pet restraint to keep them from distracting you on the road, Wolko says.

If you have questions for Jason Tchir about driving or car maintenance, please write to globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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