When discussing the dangers of leaving pets in cars, unlike hot weather, we often fail to consider cold weather. While it’s true there are more risks to leaving an unattended pet on summer days, leaving an unattended pet on winter days, despite fewer risks, is just as deadly. For your pet’s health and safety you should never leave them unattended in a car, no matter what the outside temperature is.
Just like your car can act as an oven in the summer, it can act as a fridge in the winter (or freezer if you’re in Minnesota). In the winter, cars cool to the outside temperature within minutes, enabling medical complications such as hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when a pet’s internal temperature drops. Shivering and curling for warmth are often observed in the early stages. If can intervene now, the likelihood of drastic consequences is low. As the hypothermia becomes more severe you may notice lethargy or sluggishness, stiffness in their movements, slower breathing, and a decrease in their responsiveness or confusion. As the symptoms become more severe the less likely they are to recover. It is important to take your pet into the ER immediately if you see the more severe symptoms. For this reason, it is important to not risk your pet’s life, as these symptoms can cross over into the severe in a very short period of time.
It’s important to consider the ways you’re helping, or in some cases, hurting your pet. Pet owners have attempted various strategies to safely leave pets in cars, all of which have proven unsuccessful. One mistake is cracking the widows. To avoid possible suffocation, you may think to crack your windows, but don’t! Every year there are pet owners that crack their windows on cold winter days and return to a pet fatality.
Another mistake is to leave water. This can be a problem for several reasons. First, it will likely freeze and become undrinkable or extremely cold. If it freezes, your pet will not have access to water, you then risk your pet becoming dehydrated. If the water has cooled because of the ambient temperature but not frozen, they have access to water, but this is very cold water. Their bodies must then expend the energy to combat that freezing cold liquid inside their bodies. Due to the inactivity forced on a pet locked in a car, they can not exercise to stay warm. This increases their risk of life threatening hypothermia.
Keep in mind, just like people, pets can tolerate cold temperatures differently. For example, the nature of the fur; generally pets with longer hair endure the cold better than pets with short hair. But because of the time your pet spends indoors, there is no guarantee that their body would have triggered the necessary reaction to develop their true winter coat.
The health of the pet matters too! Pets with diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease are at a much higher risk due to their inability to regulate body temperature.
What can you do if you see an animal trapped in a car that appears unsafe? The state of Minnesota prohibits leaving a dog or cat unattended in a standing or parked motor vehicle in a manner that endangers the dog's or cat's health or safety. For this reason, call law enforcement immediately and help save a pet life.
The bottom line is, leaving a pet in an unattended car is dangerous in every season. If you’re not sure that you’ll be able to take your pet with you to every location on your errands, don’t risk it—leave them at home where they’re safe and secure. Your pet’s safety is your responsibility, err on the side of caution and always protect your pet!
Written By: Gracie Butler
Animal Care Foundation
Providing elderly and disabled community members access to veterinary care for their beloved pet.