Officer issues warning about dangers of heat on pets

In a matter of minutes on a hot day, it can feel like an oven inside a vehicle.

Chuck Heiss, the Seymour Police Department’s animal control officer, said he can’t stress enough to people to not leave their pets in their vehicle.

Even if it’s just to run into a store to pick up a few things, pets should not be left unattended.

It not only puts the pet’s life at risk, but it’s against the law, too.

According to pet food company Purina, it only takes five minutes for a car’s interior temperature to reach 90 degrees on an 85-degree day. The interior temperature bumps up to 100 after 7 to 10 minutes and 120 after 30 minutes. If it’s 100 degrees outside, it only takes 15 minutes to feel like 140 degrees inside.

Even on a mild or cloudy day with the windows open, a parked vehicle can quickly become a furnace. The animals are at risk of suffering from brain damage or dying from heatstroke.

Last year, Heiss said he responded to several calls where the pet owner left the windows cracked and had a bowl of water in the car.

“That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t stop the car from heating up,” Heiss said. “People think they can crack the windows and that’s fine, but it’s not. The windshield, the glass not only insulates the car, but it magnifies and intensifies the sun’s rays, so it’s very dangerous. Anybody that has ever gone in and sat down on vinyl seats with shorts on knows how hot that gets.”

If Heiss responds to a call about an unattended animal in a vehicle, he said he can issue a ticket with a fine between $75 and $150.

Depending on the severity of the circumstances, he said he could file charges for animal neglect and/or animal abuse. Those charges could be a Level 6 felony.

Heiss said he is trying to get the word out now with temperatures soaring earlier than usual.

“We’ve already had 90-degree temperatures, so it’s going to be a long, hot summer, I would imagine, and I’m just trying to avoid problems,” he said.

During the summer months, Heiss said he averages six calls a month related to animals left unattended in vehicles.

While he has never filed charges, he said he has issued numerous citations.

“Even if your car is locked, I will enter your car and remove that animal,” he said, noting he typically calls another police officer to help with the investigation and track down the pet’s owner.

Once the animal is removed from the vehicle, he begins the cool-down process, placing it in his vehicle with the air conditioning on and providing fresh water to reverse dehydration.

“Once an animal gets hot, it is a lengthy process to cool them down,” Heiss said. “A dog’s average temperature is around 102 to 105. Once that temperature reaches up to about 107, then they are at risk for heatstroke and all kinds of problems.”

Danger signs include rapid panting, a bright red tongue, red or pale gums, thick, sticky saliva, depression, weak or dizzy, vomiting or diarrhea, shock and coma, according to Purina.

“If a dog is yelping and panting incessantly, that dog is past that threshold, and they are hot,” Heiss said. “They recognize they are hot, and they are crying out for help. They are trying to get out.”

Heiss said he once removed a cat from a hot car.

“Any time you see a cat panting, that cat has already crossed that threshold,” he said. “That cat is already hot — too hot. The temperature is already raised beyond normal. If that cat is panting, it’s in distress.”

With heatstroke, irreversible damage or death can occur. Fortunately, Heiss said none of the calls he has responded to resulted in the animal dying.

If it’s severe enough, Heiss said he would take the animal to a veterinarian and start intravenous fluids.

“Because an animal will die of dehydration a lot faster than it will of starvation,” he said. “Dehydration sets in really, really fast with animals, so you’ve got to be very, very careful about it.”

With the pet’s owner, Heiss said he focuses more on education than enforcement.

He gives them a flier from Purina that explains the dangers of leaving a pet unattended in a vehicle.

“If I can do it through education and I am convinced I’m getting through to folks, that’s where I’ll leave it,” Heiss said. “But if I don’t believe or if I can’t educate folks that this is not right, then I will pursue the enforcement issues, whether that be summons, whether it be criminal charges or something like that.”

Heiss said some people may note police dogs are kept in the back of police cars. Those vehicles, however, are equipped with specialized cooling systems and alarms to alert the handler, he said.

In most cases, Heiss said people don’t think it through when it comes to leaving their pet in a vehicle.

“Frankly, most of the folks that you encounter are very concerned with their pets, they are attached to their pets and their pets go everywhere with them,” he said. “Then because of that habit, they don’t realize and they don’t take into consideration it’s too hot. I can’t take my pet with me to Walmart or to the grocery store where I’m going to be 20 or 30 minutes and leave my pet unattended in the car.”

A police officer also can issue a fine if an animal is left unattended in the backyard of a home with no water or shade.

Heiss said it’s also important for people to keep an eye on their dog while taking it out for a walk on a hot day.

“Asphalt gets hot in the summertime,” he said. “Their pads (on their feet) are not made to deal with that, so you want to make sure that you’re not stepping in hot tar or stepping on hot asphalt because it is a risk to them.”

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If you see an animal left unattended in a vehicle, call the Seymour Police Department at 812-522-1234.

Elsewhere in Jackson County, call 812-358-2141.