Opinion: Summer isn’t here yet, but it’s already too hot to leave a dog in a parked car

A black-and-white dog looks out a lowered car window.
Well-wishers do a drive-by birthday celebration for Chopper the Biker Dog last August at Dallas Park in La Mesa. Other dogs in cars aren’t so fortunate.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

With summer approaching, experts have started to remind dog owners to keep their pets safe in the heat. In Phoenix, where temperatures have already topped 100 degrees, animal welfare organizations have received around 300 heat-related calls since November. The number will grow significantly during the summer; last year, the Arizona Humane Society responded to approximately 700 heat-related incidents.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 31 pets died from heat-related causes in the U.S. last year. These are only the cases that were reported to PETA; in reality, there are many more deaths. Why, despite all the warnings, do dog owners fail to protect their pets from the sun?

The government can certainly do more for the health of our animal companions. “Now, only 18 states have a specific definition of adequate outdoor shelters for dogs,” said Leighann Lassiter, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society of the United States. Only seven of these states require dog owners to provide shade or protection from direct sunlight.


Surprisingly, California and other high-temperature desert states in the Southwest, such as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, are not on the list. “The gaps in the laws leave it up to interpretation by each dog owner or officer to decide what the appropriate shelter is,” Lassiter said. If the laws were more specific, it would be easier for dog owners to understand what is expected from them.

But authorities can only tell people to be more responsible (and fine them when they aren’t). Pet owners should know themselves when it is too hot for their pets to go for a walk or be left in the backyard without shade. And they should not be under the impression that nothing will happen to their dog if it’s locked in their car on a warm day, even if the vehicle is parked in the shade, and even with windows cracked open. According to Best Friends Animal Society, the temperature inside a car on a 70-degree day can rise to 89 degrees in 10 minutes and 104 degrees in only half an hour. When a dog’s temperature reaches 108 degrees, it can die.

A few states (California among them) allow citizens to enter someone else’s car and rescue an unattended animal that appears to be suffering from the heat. Regardless of what the law provides, would-be rescuers should call law enforcement to make sure that animal control is on its way before breaking into a stranger’s vehicle. Judie Mancuso of Social Compassion in Legislation, a group that advocates for animal-welfare laws, said she once called animal control to report on a dog that was panting in a hot car. Officers took the dog out of the vehicle and gave it water. When the owner showed up, he was surprised but thankful, said Mancuso. “But some people get mad,” she added.

It would help as well if businesses did more to protect animals. Stores, for example, could broadcast announcements about dogs left alone in hot cars in their parking lots.

But it would be ideal if people did not count on animal control, good Samaritans or store announcements and just left their dogs at home, with access to shade and water, when the weather gets hot.