August 2, 2011 @ 1:12 PM

  As the summer temperatures start to climb, canine heat stroke is at centre of all of our minds. At Dogsafe Canine First Aid, we strive to focus on education and planning so you can effectively respond to a typical dog in a hot car situation.

What is Heat Stroke

Unlike humans, dogs don’t have efficient cooling systems. Although

dogs do sweat through their paw pads, panting is their primary method of getting rid of body heat. However, if the outside temperature is the same or higher than a dog’s normal body temperature, panting will not cool a dog down.

A dog’s normal body temperature is 100° – 102° Fahrenheit or 37.8° to 38.9° Celsius. Heat exhaustion is when a dog’s body temperature rises to between 104° – 106° F (40° – 41.1°C) but panting may still cool a dog down if they are removed from the hot environment. Life-threatening heat stroke happens when a dog’s body temperature is above 106° F (41.1° C) and a dog has lost the ability to cool itself. The critical temperature for organ failure is 109° F (42.8° C) and a dog may collapse and die without intervention.

You are not likely to know the exact body temperature of a dog in a hot car, so it is critical to know what heat stroke looks like. Signs include: heavy panting, profuse sweating from paw pads, dry mouth, thick saliva, gums redder than normal, breathing difficulties, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, collapse and seizure.

What Can Animal Control and Police Officers Do Under the Law?

Understanding the signs of heat stroke may also help you understand the assessment process of those who respond to these incidents and especially to help you convey the seriousness of the situation if the person responding does not see the situation in the same way. And understanding the laws may help you understand the legal limitations of those who respond to these incidents.  Knowledge is power.

Some cities have municipal by-laws regarding dogs in hot cars. These by-laws may be vague, like the District of North Vancouver, and state something along the lines of “no person may cause an animal to be confined in an enclosed space, including a car, without adequate ventilation”. West Vancouver’s Animal Control By-Law Section 7.8.1 is more specific and states that “no person may cause or permit an animal to be confined in an enclosed space, including a motor vehicle, unless (a) fresh air ventilation is provided by a vent or opening of at least or 500 cm2 (77.5 in2); and (b) the temperature in the enclosed space does not exceed 30 degrees Celsius”. These municipal by-laws are enforced by municipal animal control officers, by-law officers or police officers and vague by-laws allow for discretion and differences in interpretation of the law. Each city will have their own by-laws enacted and therefore enforcement will be different. However, in most cities, animal control or by-law officers do not have specific authority to enter a private vehicle and seize a dog and if they do, many will only do so with the assistance of police officers. You can check city hall for your local animal control by-laws.

Each province and territory in Canada also has an animal protection law that is enforced by either police officers or those deemed “authorized agents” as described in the Acts. In BC, it is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act which is enforced by BC SPCA Special Constables who are appointed under the Police Act. The section that applies to a dog in a hot car is Section 1 (2) of the Act which defines an animal in distress if it is (a) deprived of adequate food, water, shelter, ventilation, space, care of veterinary treatment. Section 14 (1) further defines critical distress as distress in an animal of such a nature that (c) immediate veterinary intervention is necessary to prevent the imminent death of the animal.

Many people think that animal control officers or SPCA Special Constables will attend and immediately smash a car window to help a panting dog, however, it is not so simple. For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, an assessment of the situation must be made and there is room for interpretation of distress vs. critical distress. The difference is important because it determines whether an authorized person (the BC SPCA Special Constable) can enter a vehicle with or without a warrant. Section 13 of the Act states that if the animal is deemed in distress, the authorized agent may only enter a vehicle with a warrant. The warrant needs to be obtained in person or if impracticable, the warrant may be obtained over the phone. If the animal is deemed in critical distress, the authorized agent may enter a vehicle without a warrant for the purpose of relieving the dog of that critical distress. Check for details in the specific animal protection act for your province.

There are also the cruelty to animal laws as outlined in the federal Criminal Code of Canada and which are enforced by police officers. Section 445 states “Every one commits an offence who (a) willfully causes or, being the owner, willfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal”. The important word is willfully, which means deliberately or intentionally, and which could be difficult to prove for your typical dog left in a hot car situation.

What Does All This Mean for You?

Since you are not deemed an “authorized agent” as defined by municipal by-laws and provincial acts or a police officer under the federal Criminal Code, you have no specific authority to enter into a vehicle to assist a dog.

What if you decide to break the window and gain entry anyways? Section 430 (1) of the Criminal Code states that “Every one commits mischief who willfully (a) destroys or damages property”. So while you may consider your reason for breaking the window a good one, you may potentially be investigated and arrested for mischief and have to explain your defense in court.  Saying you broke a window because a dog was only panting will not likely be sufficient.  If you are found guilty and convicted of mischief, you will have a criminal record which may affect your career, travel and life.

Let’s look at impulsive “smash the window” action a bit further. Have you ever tried to break a car window? It is more difficult than you think. What are the risks? You could seriously hurt yourself. You could also shatter glass all over the dog and injure it further. The dog may react defensively and bite you as you attempt to get a hold of it. Or the dog may jump from the car and get hit by a car in its attempt to escape. Or the dog may be successful in its escape and continue to run away, therefore defeating the purpose of you trying to help it.

What is your plan after you’ve got the dog? Are you going to transport the dog to a veterinary clinic? Who will pay the bills? Since you have not acted under authority of the provincial act, there is no requirement for the owner to reimburse anyone for the costs of treatment. Also, a veterinary clinic may or may not perform veterinary care at no cost, especially if the care is not deemed emergent. You may have a different interpretation of distress than a veterinarian.

A “smash the window” comment is usually based on emotions and frustrations rather than clear thinking and planning. I want to be very clear that I am not saying, take no action. Dogs die every year in hot cars and it can happen fast. I am also not advising to break, or not break, a window. What I am saying is that I want to help you make an informed decision with a priority of helping the dog and considering the risks of your actions. Reacting in an impulsive manner rarely ends well in any situation and responding in a calm manner for the purpose of helping the dog is always the goal.

For more information on what to do when you are concerned about a dog, including, a free downloadable checklist to help you responde effectively to a dog in a hot car, please see Dogsafe's Heatstroke Awareness & Responder Network Community Project

by Michelle Sevigny

Michelle Sevigny is a former Vancouver police officer and creator of Dogsafe Canine First Aid and currently lives on Gabriola Island with her Labrador retriever rescue, Lucy. 


© 2010 Michelle Sevigny. Reprint permission granted with full copyright intact.

Photo by emdot