Leaving dogs in the car? Is it illegal & can you break the window?

23 November 2016
WARNING: Hot cars and pets do not mix – ever. The real facts about pets and summer.

This summer, the message from Pet Insurance Australia is clear – don’t leave your dog or cat in the car.

Most dog owners, like parents, will only crack the window when they leave their dog in the car, afraid that Fluffy might escape or the Camry might get stolen. But even if you crack the windows, Fido is in grave peril.

“The heatstroke message is a serious one. Dogs die in warm cars, and will quickly succumb to the detrimental effects of heatstroke very quickly.”
– Spokesperson for Pet Insurance Australia, Nadia Crighton

Pet Insurance Australia urges all pet owners to leave the dog at home when they go out to run errands, rather than leaving them in the car.

“In 2012 we had a total of 21 claims for heatstroke, in 2016 (to date), we have had a total of 159 claims,” Crighton says. “Understandably this is not all dogs in hot cars, however we can clearly see an increase from year to year.”

Education and understanding is the key to preventing heatstroke in dogs, particularly when it comes to cars.

“When people understand how quickly this can all happen they will be much more likely to leave the dog at home when needing to attend to activities that will see their dog left in the car.”
According to the RSPCA, the temperature inside a car can reach 50 degrees C in just five minutes – even when the temperature outside is only moderate. When the RACQ conducted a test on this, the outside temperature was 32.5 degrees C – so, hardly a summer scorcher.

Kidsafe, along with AAMI & celebrity chef Matt Moran last year performed a graphic test showing just how hot cars get in summer – by roasting some lamb using only the ambient heat in a locked car at Sydney’s Bondi Beach. The temperature peaked at 83 degrees C, and according to Mr Moran, both sides of lamb were “totally overdone” after just 90 minutes.


The RSPCA says dogs suffering heat stress get restless, as well as panting and drooling. They can also stagger and experience vomiting, diarrhoea or seizures. Heat stroke is a medical emergency, according to the RSPCA, requiring an urgent assessment by a vet.

Dr Merrin Hicks BVSc (hons) MVSc FANZCVS, Emergency and Critical Care Specialist and National Manager at The Animal Referral Hospital understands the importance of reminding Australians of the dangers of hot cars.

“People need to remember that dogs are not people!” Dr Hicks says. “They need to pant to cool down, they need water to keep their airways moist, and they need us to keep them away from danger.”

This is also a global problem, with an endless array of viral videos and articles around people smashing car windows in an attempt to save panting and distressed dogs who are trapped in hot cars.

Cracking a window makes no difference

Heat stress studies like this one from Stanford University have proven that cracking the windows cannot keep a car cool enough for a pet or a child to survive. The study showed a car’s internal temperate rises to a shocking 47 degrees within the first hour – on a cool, 22 degree day – and continues to rise.

During the entire Australian summer, we can expect car interior temperatures to reach fatal or life-threatening levels.

The greatest amount of heat increase happens in the first 30 minutes – and cracking the window makes less than 5 degrees of difference in the temperature. More importantly, after 30 minutes, cracking a window makes no difference at all, and the temperatures will not be bearable by children or pets.

An earlier study by the Louisiana Office of Public Health found that on a cloudy day, temperatures in a car could reach 51 degrees in as little as than 20 minutes.

Imagine bumping into a friend in the carpark and pausing for a quick, 10-minute chat. Then inside the supermarket, you face a longer line than expected, another 10 minutes gone. Sadly, your dog might already have died from the heat.

At elevated body temperatures, dog’s organs begin to shut down irreversibly, cells die, and the animal risks dying of shock, says Dr Chris Papantonio of the Colyton Vet Hospital in NSW.

Dr Papantonio explains, “Dogs cannot efficiently cool themselves down as well as we do. A dog can succumb to heat stroke within minutes.”

“We had a client transport their dog in the back of their car to the dog park. On the way, they dropped off at the shops to pick some things up and left him in the car. By the time they got to the dog park, the dog was already showing signs of heat stroke so they rushed him into us for treatment.”

Breeds at special risk of heatstroke

Brachycephalic breeds, such as Pugs and Bulldogs, have a higher risk of heatstroke. Their head shape prevents adequate air flow and cooling, even when the dog is panting.

What to do if you see a pet in a car

First off, first aid:

First aid involves bringing the dog’s temperature down steadily – by spraying cool water on the dog and using a fan (if available). Ice water is not recommended as the temperature change can be too rapid if the water is too cold.

For more information on first aid and heat stroke prevention for pets, visit the RSPCA NSW factsheet.

If you can’t reach the pet to perform first aid, Pet Insurance Australia recommends you do the following if you ever see a dog struggling in a hot car:

  • Take down the vehicle’s registration.
  • Ask nearby businesses if you can make an announcement over the P.A. system, just in case the owner is nearby.
  • Call your local RSPCA animal rescue centre, or your local police.
  • Wait by the car until help arrives.

Source: RSPCA

Is it illegal to leave your dog in the car?

There are penalties for leaving pets in cars. Causing pets to suffer is a crime, and the penalty can be as much as $5,500 and 6 months in jail. If the pet dies as a result of this mistreatment, the penalty jumps to $22,500 and up to two years in jail.

However, there is a wrinkle in this pet safety story: let’s say you are walking down the road and you see a pet locked in a car, apparently suffering. Are you entitled to break the window and rescue the animal? According to Chris Jager, an editor at lifehacker.com.au, it’s technically illegal to rescue the pet by breaking the window. Mr Jager says there’s no explicit legal immunity from wilfully damaging someone else’s property – even if your motivation is the honest, altruistic salvation of the animal.

If the dog is not suffering, rescuing it may be completely unjustified. But even if it is, whether you are ultimately charged with a property damage offence might be up to the discretion of a police officer in charge of investigating the matter – if it gets that far. (Of course, the owner of the dog might be very reluctant to involve the police, as their own negligence in respect of their pet might be heavily scrutinised, and subject to the penalties above.)

Perhaps the best course of action, provided the pet is not in what appears to be imminent danger of succumbing, is to call triple zero (000) and outline the problem. Don’t worry – a dog trapped in a hot car is well inside the remit of an emergency services response.

Summer safety for pets – other threats

Keep your pets safe this festive season. Watch out for these other potential threats to your beloved pet:

  • Accidental food poisoning and pancreatitis: Pets are not designed to eat fatty and processed human foods, so make sure no one feeds your pet their leftovers at Christmas lunch. Here are 8 foods your dog shouldn’t go near.
  • Accidental alcohol poisoning: Keep the alcohol as far from your pets as you would keep it from your young children.
  • Snakes and ticks: Keep your lawns mowed short. Invest in a tick prevention regime.
  • Spiders: They won’t usually be fatal, but they do cause an allergic reaction. Get the anti-reaction drugs from your veterinarian now, so you don’t have to pay the bill to get a vet to look at them in the middle of the night if they get bitten.
  • Ear and skin infections: A trip to the beach can mean an infection if you don’t rinse your dog down from head to toe afterwards, and clean their ears regularly.

Well-known celebrity vet, Dr Robert Zammit from Vineyard Veterinary Hospital, says prevention is better than a cure when it comes to pets indulging during the festive season. Taking these simple precautions can ensure your family – furry family members included – have a relaxing and fun holiday.