(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
The series of consequences for leaving a dog in a car on a hot day can quickly go from heavy panting to brain damage to death, and Washington County-Johnson City Animal Shelter Director Debbie Dobbs wants to raise awareness about this perennial problem.
Dogs, unable to sweat like humans when the temperatures rise, can’t cool down as easily. With nearly a week’s worth of more than 80-degree days happening in the area, Dobbs said the calls have already started to come in.
“You don’t know how many calls we’ve had in the last week,” she said.
She estimates about 15 calls have come into the shelter recently, very frequently from shopping centers and areas like Walmart, Sam’s Club and The Mall at Johnson City. Often, Animal Control officers aren’t able to respond as quickly as police officers, who will be the first to arrive.
Dobbs said people would be surprised how seriously officers treat the situation when a dog is left unattended, but serious is the appropriate response because time is of the essence. If it’s 100 degrees outside, it only takes about 15 minutes for the inside of an unventilated car, parked in the open, to reach about 160 degrees. If left in the car, the dog will increase the frequency of its panting, and if its unable to cool itself down can begin to suffer brain damage and ultimately die.
“Heatstroke is hard to reverse in dogs,” Dobbs said.
It’s not regularly that situations get to that level, Dobbs said, but one horrific event like this occurred in front of a local blood bank a few years ago where a pit bull ultimately died from a similar situation while the dog’s owner went in to give blood.
She shared another scenario where a woman went into a movie theater with her grandchildren after having parked a car containing her Jack Russell terrier in the shade. Because the theater wouldn’t announce her name over the loudspeakers, animal control officers removed the dog and brought it to the shelter.
Dobbs said when the woman came out, she was furious because the dog had been wearing a cooling vest. Owners can be fined, Dobbs said, and city ordinances are much more harsh than state laws, but she wishes they’d go a bit further.
Tembra Aldridge, general manager of the Mall at Johnson City, said calls related to overheated unattended dogs happen, but aren’t all that numerous.
It usually begins with a concerned customer, she said, which prompts them to check on the situation. They’ll look at the animal to see if it’s under duress and gauge the situation from there. If it is, they’ll call police or the animal shelter. Sometimes the JCPD will open the car and give the dog water, Aldridge said.
Though they also have loudspeakers at the mall, she said they don’t use them to track down an owner because they only cover the common areas, when lots of times the person is in a store. In those cases, giving a description of the person and what they’re wearing is most effective.
JCPD Capt. Brian Rice said the animal shelter must be taking care of the calls, because they haven’t had to handle such calls yet this year, though it’s expected to pick up in the middle of the summer.
“I’d like to think people are responsible,” Rice said about dog owners.
Contrary to public perception, Rice said, officers have to gauge the difference between an animal and a human’s life and don’t jump to the conclusion of busting out someone’s car window if the vehicle contains a dog. In extreme situations like that, they’ll wait for animal control officers, whom Rice called experts, before doing anything like that.
One way Dobbs and the animal shelter are endeavoring to get the word out is by passing out information wherever they can. She says they have a bright orange card she calls an “attention getter” that tells people how hot cars get in short amounts of time if the windows are up. Sometimes they’re placed on people’s windshield wipers.
Officers also carry with them thermometers for inside and outside the vehicle to show just how much hotter it can get for an unattended animal.
Dobbs said she recognizes that people like to have their animals with them when they’re out, but often a quick trip into the store can change for a variety of reasons, and the animals left in the vehicles pay the price physically. The line pet owners shouldn’t cross is 70 to 75 degrees, Dobbs said, in bringing their pets out with them. Even parking in the shade with the windows down isn’t recommended, she said, which goes with how she likes to sum it up.
“If you’re just going to ride around, that’s fine,” Dobbs said. “But if you’re going to leave the car at all, leave the dog at home.”
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