The heat is killing Utah dogs — and their owners could have prevented their deaths

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Capt. Bob Lewis with Salt Lake County Animal Services gets a reading of 122.5 of the interior of a vehicle with an infrared temperature measuring device, July 18, 2018.

Almost daily, Deann Shepherd has to locate someone who left his or her pet locked in a hot car in the parking lot where she works.

Shepherd works at the Humane Society of Utah.

“People come in to look at animals, but they leave their pet in the car,” she said. “We’re constantly calling people to return to their car and get their pet out.”

Pet owners are putting their dogs, and sometimes cats, in jeopardy across Utah. The BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Midvale sees three to five cases of life-threatening overheating a week, according to veterinarian Jordan Scherk. Salt Lake County Animal Control averages 120 calls a month reporting dogs locked in cars during the summer, “and we serve only about half the county,” said spokeswoman Callista Pearson.

This continues despite the fact that, year after year, there are stories about dogs dying. And ongoing campaigns to educate pet owners and umpteen news accounts about the dangers. Even people who ought to know better, including a then-Cache County sheriff’s officer whose service dog died after he was left in a police vehicle.

“Why is this a shock to people that they shouldn't leave their dogs in a hot car?” Pearson said. “You shouldn't leave your children in a hot car.”

Although that happens, too. Shepherd recalled one time when she was outside the Humane Society building doing an on-camera interview about this issue for a TV station, “and we turned around and somebody had left their children in a car."

“Don't leave kids or pets in the car. Ever. You think it's just good judgment, right? But we still have to remind people every year.”

“It shocks me, too,” said Scherk, an emergency and critical care specialist at BluePearl. “Maybe they don’t realize 75 degrees out is too hot to have pets in the car, but 90 or 100?”

How hot is too hot?

“Once it’s over 70, it is too hot to leave your dog in a car,” said Pearson, adding that when it’s 100 degrees out, it can reach 140 in a car.

“And even if the windows are rolled down some," Shepherd said, “they don’t have adequate airflow.”

There’s no way to know how many dogs will die from heat exhaustion and heat stroke this summer, but make no mistake about it — dogs are dying. American Fork veterinarian Samuel Rivera posted this warning July 9 on Facebook:

“Today alone, we have now had 2 dogs arrive dead from heatstroke! Please keep your pet inside, keep them hydrated, cool and under observation!”

The dogs — a pit bull and a pug — died on the same day after unrelated incidents.

Scherk said “a large majority” of the overheated dogs he treats are saved.

“Every once in awhile we’ll get a dog that hasn’t been brought in or cooled off fast enough and doesn’t make it,” he said. “And then we have the unfortunate population of dogs that can be saved, but financially it’s not feasible for the owners.”

Still, dogs in locked cars can be saved if the authorities are alerted immediately.

“Don’t just walk by," Shepherd said, “and think it will be OK.”

You should:

  • Call 911 immediately.

That’s preferable to calling animal control, which cannot turn on emergency lights and get to the scene more quickly. “And you have just minutes before it becomes critical,” Shepherd said.

  • Try to locate the owner. Alert nearby businesses and ask them to page the owner of the car.

  • Use your cellphone to take pictures of animal and of the vehicle’s license plate.

  • Stay put until the police or animal control arrives — even if the pet owner returns and drives away.

“We'll track down their license-plate information and send out notices to those owners,” Pearson said. “We won't give them a ticket, but we'll send them an awareness thing about leaving your dog in a hot car.”

Although some states, including California, have passed laws allowing you to break a window to save a dying pet, Utah is not among them.

“Don’t hesitate to call 911," Pearson said, “but do not break a window yourself.”

And the problem isn't just dogs left in cars.

“We see a lot of dogs that come in that are overheated from exercise — hiking or just walking,” Scherk said. “The dogs are either not in good enough condition or they’re dark colors, which absorbs more heat.”

Dogs shouldn’t hike in the middle of the day, and walks should be kept as brief as possible. Remember that dogs aren’t wearing protective footwear.

“Stick the back of your hand on the asphalt or the sidewalk or the trail,” Pearson said, “and if it's too hot for you to hold your hand there for five seconds, it's too hot to walk your dog.”

“If you can’t tolerate the heat," Scherk said, “your fuzzy friend can’t tolerate it.”

Remember that, even as the sun goes down, the ground remains hot.

The experts agree that summer is not the time to leave dogs outdoors.

“Some people say, ‘Well, it’s a dog. It’s meant to survive outside,’” Shepherd said. “But we’ve domesticated these animals so they depend on us, and they aren’t wild.

“And even a wolf out in the wild has a den that's dug into the ground so it's cool.”

If dogs do go outside in the heat, they should:

  • Have plenty of clean, cool water.

  • Have access to shelter/shade.

  • Have attentive owners.

“I wouldn’t leave your dog unattended for more than 15 or 20 minutes in your yard,” Shepherd said. “And that’s with leaving them with appropriate access to shade and cool water.”

Don’t just assume your dogs are enjoying the sunshine; they may be getting too much of it.

“They’re like a little kid," Shepherd said. "They don’t know when it’s too much.”

Perhaps even worse than hot yards are hot balconies, which are “a total oven,” Pearson said. “They collect heat just as badly as a car. People will leave their pet out there all day, and they’ll knock over their water and overheat. A lot of dogs will die from heat exhaustion that way.”