Dog on the Couch

Hi Susan,

Last Saturday in the very hot and humid weather I was very concerned to see a panting dog which had been left in a car in a supermarket parking lot. Although the windows were open a little, I was concerned. What should one do in a case like this?


During the recent heatwave in England this very issue became a topic after several cases came to Court as a result of people breaking into cars to rescue dogs that had been left in similar conditions. According to the British Criminal Damage Act of 1971, the action of breaking a car window to save a dog from dying of heatstroke could be defended if the act were considered ‘reasonable’. Further, if the dog were reasonably considered to be suffering serious harm or, worse, liable to die, you might additionally argue the ‘implied consent’ of an owner to save his dog’s life which he has unwittingly imperilled. After all, the owner might have been taken ill or detained in some way and unable to take care of the situation. I believe that a competent magistrate would not expect a member of the public to ignore what amounts to accidental or cruel negligence on the part of the ‘owner’ of the dog. It is likely that the Law would recognise reasonable action and necessity on the part of a member of the public. Obviously the circumstances might allow you to consider any other less drastic means that might be available to save the dog before breaking a window. Please see the signs of over-heating noted below.

If conditions allow, the advisable thing to do if you see a dog in a hot car is to phone the SPCA, police or Protection Services and ensure that action is urgently taken by them. Ask the car guard how long the dog has been in the car. If the situation is not too desperate, you might be able to stay at the car and monitor the dog in the hope of the owners returning, and then explain the dangers of their negligence or ignorance.

Dogs that are taken for an outing in the car are usually much-loved. The last thing on such an owner’s mind is to harm the pet which is considered a family member. However, it is important to educate people about the dangers of over-heating in animals.

On a warm day the inside temperature in a car with partly open windows may exceed 49 degrees Celsius in a matter of minutes. We humans have sweat glands over most of our bodies which release moisture when our internal temperature is too high. When fluid evaporates it cools. This cool film on our skin serves to lower our body temperature. Dogs have the most of their sweat glands in their paw pads. When dogs overheat they leave a trail of wet paw prints. A dog’s main means of cooling down is by open-mouth panting which allows moisture on the tongue to evaporate. As we have seen in the recent heat wave, when the outside air is hot and humid the dog struggles to maintain a healthy temperature. If this is not remedied and the temperature not brought down to normal levels the dog can quickly succumb to brain damage, suffocation, coma and death.

Another thing people seem to be unaware of is the effect of hot surfaces such as paving, tar or sand on their dog’s paw pads. I often see people walking dogs on long expanses of tar for prolonged periods in extreme temperatures. If you can’t hold the back of your hand comfortably on the surface in question for ten seconds, then it is too hot for the dog to walk on.

Signs of an overheated dog may be vigorous panting, dark red and/or dry gums, bloody vomiting or diarrhoea, lying down and reluctant to get up, staggering gait, collapse and/or loss of consciousness, thick saliva and seizures.

If you suspect a dog is suffering heat stroke, move the dog out of the heat, cool her off with a shower or tap water (not ice-cold water), place a cool towel over the dog and wrap the paws in cool wet rags, give the dog access to cool water, contact your vet.

Together with elderly or over-weight dogs of any kind, Brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds such as Pugs, Bulldogs, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers and even Staffies are most prone to overheating.

It would be kinder to leave your dog at home in a suitable environment than to take him out into the conditions discussed above.

In hot weather, prevent overheating by walking your dog in the earlier morning or later afternoon. Ensure that there is access to clean, cool water and shade, and that there is adequate ventilation. Do not prevent a dog from being able to move at will into shade, by chaining or otherwise containing it in a sunny place. This last error is a common cause of unnecessary suffering and harm.

- Susan Henderson©, (accredited animal behaviour consultant).

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