UPDATED: Fayetteville considers law protecting animals in hot cars

Update: This proposal was approved by a 6-1 vote on July 7.

A proposed new law in Fayetteville would ban people from leaving an animal in a hot car.

If passed, a person could be issued a citation if they left an animal in a vehicle when the outside temperature is hotter than 70 degrees and the inside of the vehicle is over 100 degrees. The law would also apply to cold temperatures, when it’s below 30 degrees both outside and inside the vehicle.

State law currently prohibits a person from knowingly mistreating an animal, but there are no local laws that protect pets left inside vehicles during extreme temperatures.

A study published in Pediatrics found that on a warm day (at least 72 degrees), temperatures inside a vehicle increased by an average of 40 degrees in an hour, with 80 percent of the temperature rise occurring in the first half hour – regardless of whether a window was left partially open.

That means when it’s 72 degrees outside, a car can heat up to 104 degrees in just 30 minutes. Under those conditions, an animal can suffer brain damage or die from heatstroke or suffocation.

“Many people think that parking in the shade, cracking the windows, or running the air conditioner from home to the store will keep their pets safe from the heat,” said Justine Lentz, Fayetteville’s Animal Services superintendent. “However, this study also demonstrated that this did not impact the rate at which the temperature increased inside a vehicle.”

Lentz said she hopes the new law will help educate people about how quickly their pets can suffer after being left in a hot car.

“While humans cool themselves by way of sweating and evaporation, dogs and other animals have a much more difficult time staying cool and this leaves them much more susceptible to heatstroke,” said Lentz.

The current policy is to dispatch an animal control officer when a complaint is received about a pet in a hot car. The officer will observe the pet to see if there are any signs of possible heatstroke, like excessive panting and drooling, disorientation, loss of consciousness, seizure, or darkening of the tongue. If they see those conditions, or if the internal temperature of the car is found to be hotter than 103 degrees, the officer will try to open any unlocked doors to let the animal out. If all the doors are locked, the officer will call the police who are authorized to break into the car.

Lentz said the Animal Services Division has responded to 47 animal-in-vehicle checks so far in 2015, but none have resulted in citations.

She said in some cases, the person had already driven away by the time an officer arrived. Other times, the officer used the situation to help educate the pet owner.

“We’re very much about public education,” said Lentz. “We want people to have a good experience and to feel comfortable talking to our officers.”

If approved by alderman at the City Council’s July 7 meeting, violations would carry the city’s general penalty which calls for fines of up to $500.