The Guidelines for Leaving Pets in a Car

It’s been said that the coldest winter ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The city by the Bay can be frigid in July and August when the afternoon fog rolls in, and the winds pick up.

If you’re on vacation in the Bay Area during the summer, and you happen to have your dog with you, it’s likely that if you leave Fido in the car for a short while there won’t be much risk to his health. It’s cool enough that he won’t overheat (provided you leave your windows open more than a crack, and give him a bowl of water).

But just 90 miles east of San Francisco is Sacramento, where the weather is much different. The average daytime temperature in California’s state capitol ranges from 95 to 100 degrees. If you head east of Sacramento, the heat index skyrockets as you hit the Nevada desert and beyond.

Not every place is San Francisco. Most of the country bakes during the summer.

Traveling with a dog - the risk of leaving them in your car

If you’re like half of the U.S. population, you’re going to drive somewhere for vacation this summer. While on the road, you’ll need to take care of certain things such as bathroom breaks, meals, stops for gas, and sleeping. This usually means you'll have to leave your dog at some point.

Let’s not forget the whole purpose of your trip - seeing some sights, visiting some cities, having a nice meal or two, or camping. Again, you’re going to have to leave your dog for a period of time. How will you ensure his safety?

You could park the car under a tree - that should surely keep him cool, right?


When the outside temperature is 70 degrees, the temperature inside your car can hit 115 degrees. And when the outside temperature outside climbs to 90, the temperature inside a car can reach 140.

That's not the worst of it. If your car is parked facing the sun, the seats and dashboard can reach temperatures up to 200 degrees.

If your dog shows signs of heat stroke

  • Note: The following are guidelines and should not be substituted for the advice of a qualified veterinarian.

Being in a hot car for even a short period of time can cause heat stroke - which can trigger organ failure, seizures, brain damage, hemorrhages, blindness, convulsions, and death.

If your dog has a sudden onset of diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, rapid panting, and his skin turns red, he’s in serious trouble. Get him inside to a cool area near a fan, and offer fresh water. Cover him with wet towels that have been soaked in water to try and bring down his temperature.

If you can't find a cool spot or a fan, look for some shade and a hose. Concentrate the spray on the back of the dog’s head and neck to cool him down.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to find a pack or two of frozen vegetables, but on the off chance that you can find those or something similar, put them on his neck to bring down his temperature. Massage his legs to help maintain the circulation, and let the dog drink as much water as he wants. Add a pinch of salt to the water to replace the minerals he’s lost.

When your dog starts to feel better, take him to the nearest pet ER.

Hot cars and the law

If you think that a meal will be fast and your car won’t have time to heat up, be advised that if you're wrong and something happens to your dog, sixteen states have laws prohibiting cruelty to animals. Leaving them in a hot car is, in some cases, is considered felony cruelty. Penalties in most states that have cruelty laws range from a bench warning to a small fine. However, some states aren’t so forgiving. In Vermont, for example, you could face up to $2,000 in fines, up to one year in prison, or both.

Can you break into a car to save a dog or cat?

If you see an animal in distress, you are not legally allowed to break into the car to save it. Only police officers, humane society representatives, fire and rescue, or their respective agents can enter cars. The best thing you can do is call 9-1-1 and report the incident. If you have the supplies to help the dog (water, towels), then hang around to help the rescuers.

Crating your dog when traveling

No one likes to crate their dog. It’s awful to see your pet in a cage. However, when traveling, it’s the safest way for them to accompany you. If they’re meandering in the backseat and you slam on the brakes, not only could you have a dog in the front seat with you who can keep you from driving safely, but the dog could get hurt in the process.

Go to a local pet store and pick out a crate that is big enough for your pet to stand up and turn around inside. See if you can buy a doggie bed pad that will fit the bottom of the crate for added comfort.

Protecting your pet while on vacation

Here are some tips on how to protect your pet while you’re on vacation, and ensure a safe and enjoyable time for all involved.

  • Have your pet microchipped, so if they run away you stand a chance of finding them. At a minimum, they should have a collar and tags with your phone number (don’t forget the area code) affixed in a manner where it won’t wear off or become illegible.

  • If you’re going to a particularly hot climate, give your dog a haircut - but leave enough so he doesn’t get sunburned. Check with your vet or groomer to see if your dog can tolerate short hair - some breeds lose their ability to regulate their body temperature when their hair is shorn.

  • Bring a copy of your pet’s records, just in case. It’s never a bad idea to have ready proof of vaccination and vet information on hand.

  • If you’re going to a city that has scorching temperatures and really hot ground, keep your walks to a minimum. Long walks on paved surfaces can burn a dog’s paws. Alternately, you can try booties to protect your dog’s paws.

  • You’ll likely pack plenty of water for you, but don’t forget Fido - he’ll need water too. Whatever amount your dog normally drinks in a day, double it.

  • A vacation is not the time to experiment with various kinds of new foods (nor should you feed your dog substantial amounts of people food if he’s not used to it). If your dog is used to eating high-end food, his stomach isn’t going to be happy with a cheap grocery store brand that you happen to pick up in a new town. Bring your dog’s normal food along. You might also want to consider bringing his favorite toys and treats to help him feel more comfortable in strange environments.

  • Be sure to remember your dog’s medicines. Refill the prescriptions before you leave home if you’re going to be gone for an extended period of time.

Remember, your dog is depending on you to have a good vacation. Since dogs are creatures of habit, make sure you give him frequent potty breaks and let him out of the car to stretch and sniff. And grabbing a bite to eat is as important to your dog as it is to you.

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