Seven years ago, the town of Brattleboro was lauded as a “national leader” by animal advocates around the country after signs warning of the danger of leaving dogs unattended in vehicles were installed in all municipal parking lots.
The permanent signs warn that heat can kill animals left in parked cars, and also remind us that it is illegal in Vermont to endanger them. They were strategically placed on all park-and-pay kiosks in town. They’re visible from various vantage points, including at eye level for those utilizing mobility assistance while shopping or doing business downtown.
The effort was given strong support in letters written by several national and local animal organizations, including the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, Windham County Humane Society, and the Vermont Animal Cruelty Task Force.
The installation of these signs followed a local public education effort that included many businesses in town prominently displaying warning signs. Local veterinarians also began educating their clients. The town also implemented similar warnings on all dog license application and renewal forms.
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The impetus for these progressive initiatives evolved after pedestrians witnessed a frantic dog in acute heat distress desperately trying to free itself from a locked car on Main Street on a day that was 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The interior temperature of the car registered at 106 degrees and was rising quickly.
Dogs are especially vulnerable to heat-related suffering, injury, and death as a result of their normal body temperature, which ranges from 101 to 102.5 degrees. Therefore, they can withstand only a small rise in body temperature for a short time before suffering irreversible damage to their nervous system, heart, liver, and/or brain.
Additionally, dogs can cool down only by panting and through the pads of their feet, both of which are rendered less effective by the heated air and seats in an enclosed vehicle, even with the windows cracked.
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Why do the signs matter?
According to meteorologist Jan Null, at the Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University, 2018 saw a record number of 53 pediatric heatstroke related deaths resulting from a child being left unattended in a vehicle. Since 1998, Null, an expert on the rapid heat rise in vehicles, reported 850 pediatric vehicular heatstroke deaths in the U.S.
Unlike with children, there are no known local, state, or national legal mandates to report deaths that result from an animal being left unattended in a vehicle (or for any reason involving neglect). Therefore, reliable mechanisms that would more accurately capture those data do not exist.
However, dogs being rescued, or suffering and dying, as a result of being left unattended in vehicles is believed to occur at vastly higher rates, based on sources such as media reports and self-reporting.
The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that “hundreds of pets” die every year after being left unattended in vehicles. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) suggests those numbers are in the “thousands.”
In an effort that lends some support to those alarming projections, the national My Dog Is Cool campaign reached out to a variety of animal and law enforcement agencies to better understand the prevalence of dogs being left unattended in vehicles.
This is a snapshot of what they found:
• In June 2014, the Sacramento, Calif. region received 50 calls to 911 reporting dogs left unattended in cars.
• The Central Pennsylvania Humane Society receives 50 to 60 calls per summer.
• In Salt Lake City, Utah, the local animal control agency received 150 calls reporting dogs left in cars within only a three-month period.
• A single shelter in Nevada reported 70 calls in one weekend.
• Animal control officers in Spokane, Wash. reported they average 12 calls per day.
Subsequently, My Dog Is Cool asked the public to consider that if the nation’s 13,600 community animal shelters received only one or two calls a day, that would still mean 27,200 dogs are left unattended in cars annually.
And that does not even consider 911 calls made to the 582,000 police departments nationally.
These numbers, as well as a simple Google search using “dog dies in hot car,” clearly show that ongoing public education is needed to prevent needless suffering and death for dogs left alone in vehicles.
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Messages that remind us of the danger to animals left in vehicles too often convey an unintended, erroneous message: that “hot” summer weather is the threat to animals left in cars.
However, science does not support that.
For example, in 2017, in Palm Springs, Calif., where it is illegal to leave any animal unattended in a vehicle regardless of the outdoor temperature, police reported the death of a dog left in a vehicle when the outdoor temperature was only 70 degrees.
Ample research on heat rise in vehicles has confirmed, over and again, that the risk of death to children and animals left in vehicles exists even on what appears to be a most perfect day.
Sadly, 12 years before the tragic death of the dog in Palm Springs, Stanford University researchers had sounded the alarm. Catherine McLaren M.D, clinical instructor in emergency medicine, summarized the findings when she said, “There are cases of children dying [in parked vehicles] on days as cool as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The Stanford study is only one among many that have identified that the interior of a vehicle can rise an average of 40 degrees within an hour, regardless of outdoor temperature. Windows left cracked open make little difference.
Furthermore, 80 percent of that temperature rise occurs within the first 30 minutes, with the highest spike in temperature within only 20 minutes.
In other words, on a sunny 70 degree day, whether parked Vermont or the California desert, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise to 99 degrees in only 20 minutes and to 104 degrees within a half hour. Dogs can die in much lower temperatures than 99 degrees.
Therefore, identifying “hot weather” during “summer months” as the message aimed at preventing harm and death to dogs (or any animal) left in vehicles is not only inaccurate, but misleading and counterproductive.
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A significant body of research shows that concise, message-focused signs are an effective means of communicating what to do and what not to do.
Additionally, the relatively low cost of producing, installing, and maintaining them makes signs a popular method for changing behavior. Strategically placed signs are playing an important role in a gradual culture change that is taking place — a culture change that recognizes that companion and service animals are central in the lives of humans.
In the wake of the town of Brattleboro’s work, similar efforts began popping up in other communities around the country. Signs warning of the danger of leaving dogs unattended in vehicles are now in other towns in Vermont, as well as in Weston, Conn. and San Diego, Calif. and around San Diego County.
In Florida, warning signs that prohibit leaving dogs in vehicles are now posted in West Coast beach parking lots.
In response to state health codes that prohibit animals entering food-service venues, New York State service plazas along the New York State Thruway offer individual air conditioned pet shelters with glass doors, so that travelers can keep their fur babies seen, and safe, while they take a break and grab lunch or coffee.
As society grapples with problems where home is a preferred and safer place to stay, and research shows that beloved companion animals have become favored friends and family members, efforts to keep them safe when they must leave home will undoubtedly continue to expand.
Public education, along with public demand, will likely drive this change — as it did in Brattleboro seven years ago.