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On a recent scorching summer day, I saw a golden retriever in an unattended parked car – but all the windows were down, and I wasn't sure what to do. Should I call the humane society even if the windows are down? – Breanna, Toronto

If you're worried about a dog in a car – call. Dogs can get heat stroke quickly in a car even if the windows are down, the Ontario SPCA said.

"The word we're trying to spread is that it doesn't matter whether the window is up or down, whether it's a mild day, whether the car is parked in the shade or whether it's a big dog or a small dog," said Brandon James, an inspector with the Ontario SPCA. "It all comes down to a pet's ability to cool itself, whether it's in a car or tied up in the back yard."

Because there are so many variables – the breed of dog, the temperature and humidity outside, the kind of vehicle – there's no formula for how long a dog can stay in a car before it's in danger of getting heat stroke, a veterinary expert told Globe Drive.

"We get asked about the magic number – the magic number is zero," said Dr. Patricia Alderson, university veterinarian at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and a member of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Committee. "Some people have probably gotten away with it for a short period of time, but cars can heat up to the point of causing death in a matter of minutes – it doesn't really matter if the windows are down."

Dogs pant to cool down and sweat through the pads of their feet. If their body temperature goes up by just two degrees, there can be irreparable brain and organ damage – and death.

"There's a point where even a vet can't reverse the effects of heat stroke." Alderson said.

On a sunny day, temperatures rise about 10C above the outside temperature in 10 minutes. After 30 minutes, it can be nearly 20C hotter in a car than outside. Windows down don't make a huge difference.

If you're there with the pet, you can watch them – or sit outside in the shade with them while someone else grabs that frappuccino, Alderson said.

"Although people need to keep in mind that whatever heat a person feels, it feels a lot hotter to the dog," Alderson said. "Heatstroke can happen very rapidly – in less than five minutes – but it does happen in stages."

If your dog is suddenly lethargic or its panting becomes laboured, cool it down – and go to the vet, Alderson says. "You can wet it down with cool water but not cold water – you don't want to shock the dog even further," Alderson said.

It doesn't matter if you're just running in for five minutes – there's no safe amount of time to leave pets alone in a vehicle. Cars heat up quickly, air conditioning can fail and, even on a cool day, pets can be stolen, James said.

He realizes that some pet owners think the advice is excessive.

"I'm not dodging or exaggerating but even if you go into the coffee shop and can see the dog in the car through the window – you turn your back to the window, you order coffee, you look down at your phone, you run into a neighbour," James said. "And you walk outside and it's been 20 minutes and the police are there – or worse, an angry member of the public."

In Ontario, if you're found guilty of causing distress to an animal, you can face a sentence of up to two years in jail and a $60,000 fine under Ontario's SPCA Act, James said. And police can also lay criminal charges.

"A court can impose anything they see fit – they could impose a pet ownership ban for a lifetime," James said.

If you see a pet in a car, who should you call? In Ontario, call the local police non-emergency number – in Toronto, that's (416) 808-2222 – the local humane society or the Ontario SPCA's central dispatch line at 310-SPCA (7722), James said.

"They will dispatch an [SPCA] officer to the location," James said. "If they're tied up or it's not accessible our dispatchers are trained to dispatch and advise police."

If you do call police yourself, don't call 911 – and don't try to free Rover from a stranger's Range Rover yourself, Toronto police said.

"People have been taking it upon themselves to smash windows," said Const. Allyson Douglas-Cook. "All we recommend is you give us a call – if we attend, it means Toronto Fire attends, and they can get the animal out."

If the dog's in trouble, the dispatcher may tell you to remove it from the vehicle if the windows are down – or break it out if they're up – but if you do it yourself, you could be charged with breaking and entering and theft, James said.

Another reason to call? When concerned passersby and owners clash, the situation can get heated quickly.

"If you walk out of the store and Angry Joe is there ready to rip you a new one – it's not an easy situation to bring down," James said. "I see it a lot."

The CAA can only help in Alberta and Manitoba

There's advice online to call the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) if you see a dog in a stranger's car – but in all but two provinces, there's nothing it can do.

"In most regions, CAA does not have the jurisdiction to unlock a stranger's vehicle if a pet is inside," said Kristine D'Arbelles, CAA spokeswoman. "However, if a CAA member accidentally locks their pet or child in their car, CAA will treat the call as priority one – ETA of less than 30 minutes – and come unlock their vehicle."

In Manitoba and Alberta, you can call CAA and they'll ask police for the authority to unlock a stranger's vehicle, D'Arbelles said.

"In Alberta, [the Alberta Motor Association] responds to almost 2,000 calls a year related to pets or kids locked inside vehicles," D'Arbelles said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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