I (Henri Bianucci) once listened as a friend complained about “stupid” squirrels. This rant was driven by the fact that she had just run one over.
“Why can’t these stupid things learn not to run in front of cars?” Everyone listening agreed that squirrels were to blame for these incidents. The entire species was dismissed for repeatedly making the same mistake.
That episode was called to mind as I observed the arrival of a patient to our emergency clinic. A client had pulled up onto the sidewalk and skidded to a stop. Our techs rushed to the vehicle, where they found an unconscious, 95-pound Labrador retriever.
The dog was panting rapidly and her face was covered in saliva. Her tongue was swollen and red, and her eyes were in a fixed, unresponsive stare. I thought, “Not again!”
The technicians whisked the dog straight to the treatment area to initiate lifesaving efforts with the attending veterinarian. Her temperature was dangerously high at 107 degrees. At this extreme, the dog’s ability to regulate its temperature is impaired and, if not quickly corrected, organ failure, brain damage and death will soon follow.
I try never to judge, but I see this so often that I can’t help but wonder how this can continue to occur with such frequency when virtually every educated person is aware of the risks posed by an enclosed vehicle in warm weather.
Apparently squirrels are not the only species that seem not to learn from the experience of others.
The owner explained that she had run a few errands, and brought her pet because she loves to go for a ride. When she got home, she grabbed the groceries and called the animal, who didn’t budge from her nice cool seat.
So, she left the door open, and planned to get the pet out when she came for the rest of the groceries. Bur her teenage son happened along, and seeing the door open, assumed it had been mistakenly left so. He closed the door without ever looking in. The owner returned to the car about 20 minutes later and to her horror, this is what she found.
We have heard so many explanations: dogs who have been left in cars with the motor running and the A/C on when the vehicle suddenly stop running; a dog slipping into the car unnoticed; people underestimating the time pets are left in the car; someone simply forgetting that they have the dog with them.
Virtually all of these people are intelligent and know the danger exists. They have all heard the same stories you have. Yet somehow, these incidents continue to occur.
We should not be surprised, I guess. People have a long history of engaging in dangerous behavior around cars, despite the risks. We speed, drink, text and talk on the phone while driving, in spite of the fact that all of those behaviors increase the odds that we will kill ourselves or others.
Cars make up so much of our daily living that we fail to fully appreciate the risks they pose.
It is estimated that hundreds of dogs perish in cars in the United States each year under similar circumstances. Even if dogs survive the initial hyperthermia (high body temperature), they will often incur irreparable brain or organ damage, which may claim them slowly over the ensuing days.
The sun’s rays quickly heat the surfaces of the dash and seats, which in turn radiate heat. A car’s interior can reach 120 degrees on an 80-degree day in 30 minutes. On a 90-degree day, it can hit 160 degrees in 10 minutes. These temperatures are quickly lethal to dogs and small children left in a closed vehicle.
This story, fortunately, ended well. After a relatively long and costly stay in the ICU, she responded to treatment and appears to have no lasting health issues. Many, if not most, are not so lucky.
To keep your dog or cat from sneaking into the car, never leave the doors open and unattended. If you are bringing your pet along for a ride, there are many suggestions about how to make this safer.
Like, leaving one shoe, your wallet or your phone in the backseat with the dog. These may remind you that your pet is there but they will not prevent lapses in judgment, such as leaving a pet in the car while you “quickly” run into a store or office.
Kay Hyman of The Charleston Animal Society recommends that unless your pet is the reason for the trip, leave it at home. Never leave the pet in the car alone. If you get out, they do, too.
That really is the safest approach and the best way to demonstrate that we are intellectually superior to squirrels.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.