Reviewed by Dr. Fiona Lee
Your best friend comes everywhere with you—to the beach, on hikes, on errands around town and maybe even to work. But there are some places dogs aren’t welcome, and in those times you may wonder: Can I leave my dog in the car? Even if you think you’ll only be gone for a minute or two, this practice can be disastrous.
Why it’s dangerous to leave your dog in the car
There are many safety considerations to keep in mind when traveling with your dog, including selecting the best car harness and understanding the dangers of dogs riding with their heads out the window. But once you reach your destination, you should never leave your dog in the car alone.
Dogs are highly susceptible to heat stroke and dehydration, which can occur quickly in hot temperatures. Even on a moderately warm day, the temperature inside a car can rise to dangerous levels in just a few minutes. In fact, leaving a dog in a parked car for just 20 minutes when the outside temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit can cause the temperature inside the car to reach almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit.1 Cracking the window has little effect on these temperatures or on canine dehydration.
Dogs cannot sweat to regulate their body temperature the way humans can. Instead, they rely on panting to cool down. But when trapped in a car with limited air circulation, dogs can quickly become overheated, leading to heat stroke and suffocation. Even if you return quickly and your dog suffers no long-lasting ill effects, the experience may cause stress and panic for your pet.
What to do if you suspect heat stroke
If you think your dog may have become overheated, watch for the following symptoms:2
- Heavy panting
- Brick red gums
- Glazed eyes
- Rapid pulse
- Unsteadiness or vomiting
To help cool your dog down, gradually reduce their temperature by offering water and placing wet towels over their back and neck. Then, get your pet to an emergency veterinarian immediately for a full checkup.2
Factors to consider before leaving a dog in the car
Although we recommend you never leave your dog unattended in the car, consider these important points to inform your decision.
Check the temperature
On hot or warm days, avoid leaving your dog in the car at all, even if it’s just for a few minutes. On cooler days, park in a shady spot and consider purchasing UV screens for windows and windshields to block as much sunlight as possible.
Be mindful of how long you are leaving your dog alone, and set an alarm to check on them regularly.
Park somewhere safe
Use your best judgment to ensure the area is safe for both your dog and your car. Lock your car securely, and hide or remove any valuables. Avoid leaving your dog in any location that’s prone to theft or break-ins.
Don’t venture far from your dog, and consider leaving a note with the time you left and your phone number to allay any bystanders’ fears and provide important information should they need to contact you quickly.
Provide essential supplies
Make sure you provide water in a spill-proof bowl. And, even though it won’t lower the temperature in the car significantly, leave a window cracked open to ensure adequate air circulation. You could leave the AC running, but this presents a potential hazard if your dog accidentally bumps the shifter into drive or neutral.
Consider alternatives to leaving dogs in cars
Although it may be inconvenient to make extra trips to drop off your dog at home before running an errand or going to an appointment, it’s always best to take those extra steps to keep your dog safe from harm. Wherever possible, bring your dog along with you, especially if you frequent dog-friendly businesses. You could ask a friend or dog sitter to care for them, or simply leave them at home where they will be safe and comfortable.
Is it illegal to leave your dog in the car?
Not only is leaving your dog in the car potentially dangerous for your pet, but it could also have legal implications for you as the owner. In many states, leaving a dog unattended in a car is considered animal cruelty and can result in fines or legal charges. In fact, 31 states have laws that either prohibit owners from leaving an animal in a confined vehicle under dangerous conditions or provide civil immunity (protection from being sued) to a person who rescues a distressed animal from a vehicle.3
Consequences for leaving a dog in a car vary across the country, from an immediate fine to a misdemeanor penalty. Fines can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Some states also impose imprisonment, with New Hampshire levying a felony charge for a second offense.3
Being a responsible dog owner
Welcoming a dog into your life is a wonderful experience, but it’s also a responsibility. It’s your duty to provide a safe and caring environment for your dog at all times.
Familiarize yourself with the rules in your home state so that you know your rights and responsibilities.
Now that you know a little more about the hazards of leaving dogs alone in cars, pass this information on to other dog owners in your community. Start a conversation sharing pet travel tips and safety concerns at the dog park or doggy daycare and with friends and family.
If you see a dog left alone in a hot car, take the following steps:4
- Visually assess the dog and write down the time.
- Write down the license number and make and model of the car.
- Ask local businesses and stores for help contacting the owner.
- Call 911.
By raising awareness of the problem and taking steps to report incidents of dogs left in cars to the proper authorities, you’re helping keep all dogs safe.4
From Pets Best
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Read these tips to keep your pet safe from summer heat.
1. Pets in vehicles. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/pets-vehicles
2. Don’t leave your pet in a parked car. The Humane Society of the United States. Published 2017. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/unattended-pets-hot-parked-car.pdf
3. Wisch, R. Table of State Laws that Protect Animals Left in Parked Vehicles. Michigan State University College of Law. Published 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.animallaw.info/topic/table-state-laws-protect-animals-left-parked-vehicles.
4. Austin, S. What to Do if You See a Dog in a Hot Car. Preventive Vet. Updated April 23, 2023. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/what-to-do-if-you-see-dog-in-hot-car