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Heat Stroke: What can I do if I see a pet in a parked car?

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Updated: December 20, 2017


We all know that heat kills pets, right?

You've likely read stories about dogs that have died of heat stroke after having been left in a car on a hot day. Maybe you even know someone who lost a pet to heat stroke as a result of leaving their pet in a parked car? But would you know what to do if you ever encountered such a situation?

Take these three scenarios, for example…

Scenario #1… You're walking by a parked car on a warm day. You notice, there under the dash, a dog panting away with big, wide-open, clearly distressed eyes. There are slobbery nose prints and fog on the inside of the window.

Scenario #2… You’re walking by the same car, but this time the dog is resting comfortably on the back seat. You can see clearly that the dog is breathing normally, not panting and not distressed.

Scenario #3…

Pets in cars can die from heat stroke:

  1. It’s important to take action, yet stay calm, when you see a pet in a car.
  2. Observe the pet’s state before deciding what to do.
  3. If a pet is in distress, try to locate the owner.
  4. Don’t be afraid to call your local animal control or non-emergency police number. If a pet appears to be in imminent danger, call 911.
  5. After the situation is resolved, stay calm and don’t start a fight with the owner.

For full list of what to do and NOT to do if you find a pet in a hot car - Click here

What do you think about these three scenarios? What would you do?

Do you know what signs to look for to indicate if intervention on your part is necessary - and, if so, at what level?

Do you know what steps to take that could help save a pet's life, and what not to do to avoid trouble with the law or a physical or verbal altercation with the pet owner?

As you might have realized, your course of action shouldn’t be the same in the three scenarios described above. Which highlights the importance of fully assessing the situation before you and using good judgment and reason when deciding how to handle a specific situation. There truly is no “one size fits all” approach to pets left in hot cars. So below I’ll outline some steps you might need to take, and show you which steps are likely most appropriate in different scenarios.

In order to best know what to do when you encounter a pet in a hot car scenario you should be familiar with the signs of and differences between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke,  which you can read about at the linked article. You should also familiarize yourself with the laws related to leaving pets in hot cars in your state, there are additional links and resources related to the laws surrounding this issue at the end of this article.

Steps You Should Always Take:

  • Fully evaluate the situation: – the condition of the pet(s) in the car must be the primary determining factor in the way you handle the situation. While it’s all romantic and heroic to just say that you’d break a window in any situation of a dog being left in a parked car – that mindset is dangerous, irresponsible, and actually harms the cause of increasing awareness and decreasing the dangerous practice of people leaving pets in cars. Use reason and good judgment and fully evaluate the condition of the pet(s) and situation before taking any action.

  • Make note of the time: Taking note of the time you first came upon the pet in the car and tracking how much time has elapsed until the pet is safe or help is administered can help you, and authorities and the attending veterinary team (if it comes to that), determine the appropriate course of action.

  • Make note of the location: Note the exact location of the vehicle – area of parking lot, stores near by, etc. – as this will be helpful should you need to go into the nearby stores or other places of business to ask for an announcement to be made.

  • Note the details about the vehicle and the pet(s): Again, this information will be necessary should you need to have an announcement made in the nearby stores to locate the owner. Make note of the color, make, and model of the vehicle, as well as the type of pet, their color, relative size, and their apparent breed (if obvious).

  • Document everything: Take photos and videos on your smartphone – or ask another concerned person to do so if your phone doesn’t have that capability. Photos and videos can be important when trying to convince store employees to make an announcement to help locate the owner, and they may also prove useful for evidence should it turn into a criminal. civil neglect, or abuse case.
Help Prevent Heat Stroke!      

Steps You May Need To Take:

  • Recruit others: Always appropriate if any interventional steps are going to be needed. If possible, try to recruit other people in the parking lot to assist you and to act as witnesses.

  • Offer water: Appropriate only if you can do so safely – without getting yourself injured – and if the dog is alert enough to drink safely. If the dog is overheated and willing and able to drink water, and you have (or can get) a water bottle that you can stick through the crack in the window, then do so. Just be sure not to offer too much too fast, as drinking too much water too fast can cause problems of their own for the dog. And never, never force water on a dog that is unwilling or unable to drink on his own.

  • Attempt to locate the owner: Always appropriate if any interventional steps are going to be needed – unless the pet is in imminent danger of death and searching for the owner will unnecessarily delay appropriate action and care.  Ideally you will have already recruited assistants and witnesses, one of who should stay by the car to watch for the owner and continue to monitor the pet’s condition. Someone else, or others, should go into the store, mall, hotel, amusement park, or whatever place of business is associated with the parking lot. Once inside,ask for the manager or go to the customer service or security desk. Tell them about the situation and ask them to make an announcement over the public address system. The announcement should include asking the owner of the vehicle to return to their car to prevent their pet’s suffering from heat stroke. Show the employees the pictures and/or video you’ve taken, if necessary to enlist them to make the announcement.

  • Contact appropriate authorities: Always appropriate if any interventional steps are going to be needed. Call the local animal control agency, the non-emergency number for the local police, or 911 – depending on the severity of the pet’s condition. Call 911 if the pet is clearly in the throes of heat stroke and at risk of imminent death.

  • Start cooling procedures: Always appropriate if a pet has to be removed from a vehicle due to overheating, unless the tools for cooling are not available and/or it would just be faster to get the pet to a veterinary facility.  If pet is clearly in distress and needs to be removed from the vehicle, begin immediate first aid and cooling measures and then transport the pet immediately to the nearest veterinary facility. Learn How To Treat Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke In Cats and Dogs.

Steps I DO NOT Recommend:

  • Breaking into a vehicle: So far as I know, it is never legal for an ordinary citizen to break into another person’s vehicle – no matter how dire the situation is. That said, if the situation is clearly dire, as in a person’s or animal’s life is in imminent danger, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and hope that the law will look favorably upon your actions (even though the owner of the pet and the vehicle may not – although even they actually might). I am in no way encouraging or recommending such actions; you do so at your own risk. Again, get familiar with the local and state laws where you live.

  • Reaching through a cracked window: Regardless of how good your intentions are, putting your hand through a cracked window to give an overheated dog water or unlock a car door is not without its risks. The dog may bite you or even bolt out of the car only to risk injury from passing traffic (as happened here). That said, if you can safely provide water, without sticking your hand into the car, to a dog confined in such a situation, then by all means do so (see note in the “Steps You May Need To Take” list above). And if the dog is in imminent danger of death from heat stroke and the window is cracked, that may well be the easiest and safest way to gain entry to the car to help the dog – rather than breaking a window (Disclaimer: See caution about “Breaking into a vehicle” above – this action may be illegal and you do this at your own risk).

  • Getting into an altercation: As upset and angry as you may be by the actions of the person or people who have left their pet in this dangerous situation, it doesn’t do anybody any good to verbally or physically assault them upon their return to their vehicle. Not only will it make them defensive and decrease the likelihood that they’ll be receptive to your message about the dangers of leaving pets in hot cars, but it may even lead to injury and/or criminal charges. None of which is helpful to the cause. Just stick with the facts and try to remain calm. This is yet another reason to recruit others and to contact the appropriate authorities when the situation requires it.

Well, there you have it… what you can, should, and shouldn’t do when faced with a pet in a hot car. I hope this is helpful to you, though I hope you’ll never have the displeasure of coming upon such a scenario. Speaking of such scenarios though, turns out that the video in “Scenario #3” above was a real-life one that I experienced. To find out how I handled it and what the outcome was, please read my How REI Helped Me Save A Dog's Life This Weekend post.

For more information and ways to find out if your state or local municipality has laws that protect pets from confinement in hot vehicles, check out the links below.

Topics: Dog Safety, Dog Health, Dog Emergency, Dogs, Cats, Summer, Heat Stroke, Pets, Cars, Signs of Heat Stroke, Blog, What can I do if I see a dog in a car on a hot day, Rescuing a dog in a locked car, Heat Exhaustion in Dogs

Photo Credit: Preventive Vet

Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

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