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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hot dogs in hot cars: When to leave Fido at home

Buddy, a 6-year-old chihuahua, poses for a photo as he sits in her owner Leslie Mitcham's car. Mitcham, from Colfax, was accused of abusing her dog by leaving him in the car. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Abby Lynes The Spokesman-Review

Leslie Mitcham is tired of being called an abusive pet owner.

On June 19, a partly cloudy day, the temperature was about 80 degrees. She and her husband were driving from Colfax to their cabin by a lake in Spokane County when they decided to leave their 6-year-old chihuahua, Buddy, in the car while they ate lunch. After they ordered, one of them would take Buddy for a walk while they waited for their food.

There was no shade, so they cracked open all the windows, opened the sun roof all the way and poured some water in a bowl for Buddy.

The couple had just been seated and given their menus when a waitress came and told them a woman was upset about their dog in their car. When they went outside, a woman in a muumuu pointed her finger at Mitcham and told her she was killing her dog, according to Mitcham. The woman had three friends accompanying her, and they all nodded in agreement.

Mitcham pointed out that she had taken precautions to make sure Buddy didn’t get too hot. The woman said she was an advocate for animals and that Mitcham was frying her dog’s brain, and she should get in the car and fry her brain, too, Mitcham said.

“So much for a peaceful lunch,” she wrote in a letter to the editor for The Spokesman-Review.

The woman told Mitcham to get in her car, and they argued some more. The woman and her friends ended up calling the police, and they told Mitcham the police would come after her. When Mitcham called authorities, they told her they wouldn’t come seeing as she was with her dog and it seemed like she was taking the appropriate steps to protect her dog.

The incident had a “chilling affect” on her, Mitcham said, and she and her husband no longer stop to run errands or eat on their way to the lake.

Mitcham said she has owned dogs all her life, and she isn’t arguing that pet owners should be aware of how hot cars can become in the summer time. She just thought that if she was taking the right precautions, she should be allowed to leave her dog in the car.

Regardless, the situation underscores a hot-button issue: As temperatures rise, pet owners are debating under what circumstances, if any, it’s OK to leave a pet in a car.

In early 2015, the Washington state Senate unanimously voted to pass a bill making it a civil offense to lock a pet in a car under dangerous conditions where the pet could be harmed by heat, cold or lack of fresh air. It also gives police and animal control officers the right to break open a window to get a pet out of a car if necessary.

If people are concerned about a pet in a hot car, they can call Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service to intervene. They get five to 15 calls a day. If the pet owner is nowhere to be found, SCRAPS will assess the situation, and if it the animal is exhibiting symptoms of overheating, they will remove the animal from the vehicle.

If a pet owner is particularly negligent or intentionally leaves an animal in an unsafe manner and the animal suffers or dies, they can be charged with animal cruelty.

SCRAPS Regional Director Nancy Hill recommended leaving pets at home during the summer months. It’s not worth the risk, she said. On a hot day, temperatures in a car can quickly reach up to 115 to 120 degrees.

If a pet owner has to run into a store, someone should stay in the car with the pet, she said.

“Some people think they’ll just leave the dog for a minute,” she said. “When have you ever been in Costco for a minute?”

Deciding whether or not to leave a pet in the car is a little trickier in spring and fall months, when temperatures tend to fluctuate. But she still recommends leaving someone in the car with a dog. The one dead pet Hill has taken from a car was on a 65-degree day, when the dog had been left for a long time with no water.

When deciding whether or not to remove an animal from a car, SCRAPS looks for signs of heat distress. Dr. Mark Schrag, with Hunter Veterinary Clinic, said symptoms of overheating may include heavy panting, brick red or purple gums, excessive drooling and lethargy. Sometimes, pets can even collapse and become non-responsive.

If it looks like a pet is overheating, the best thing to do is get them out of the heat, wet them with lukewarm water and put a fan on them. Be careful not to cool them for too long, to the point where they actually get cold. He also recommends taking the pet to the vet’s office, as they’ll usually need IV fluids. He also warned that dogs, like pugs and bulldogs, with short noses are more susceptible to overheating.

Overall, caring for your pet in the summer comes down to one thing.

“I’d say, No. 1, be aware of the temperature,” she said.