The REAL Reason Dogs Die In Hot Cars – And How To Prevent It (K9 Officers Take Note)

Last week a young Belgian malinois named Wix died in a manner dreadfully unbefitting his status as a highly trained K-9 officer –– in a hot squad car. While his partner handled a special assignment at a PGA event in Wisconsin, the cruiser’s AC unit failed. Wix’s in-car heat alarm, a backup safety feature, reportedly malfunctioned as well.

Wix in front of his partner's patrol car.

Wix in front of his partner's patrol car.

As summer temps reach their annual August peak, it’s typical for news stories like this one to make the rounds in municipal papers and local TV reports. Dogs get left in hot cars altogether too often. This, despite exhaustive media exposure and the horror these examples inevitably inspire. Which made me wonder…

You’d think cautionary tales like Wix’s would be rare, right? He was an officer, after all –– a living, breathing, highly trained member of his police corps. These dogs are not only universally revered for their elite training, they’re considered big ticket items any police department would be loathe to lose by any means –– much less one so personally fraught and publicly humiliating. 

Yet, exalted status notwithstanding, several K-9 officers die in hot squad cars every year.

This I learned after researching the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website managed by a non-profit organization that tracks the deaths of fallen officers. Here I learned that, of the nineteen K-9 officers that reportedly died in 2015 so far, eight succumbed to heat exhaustion (by far the most common cause of death for K-9 officers in 2015).

As a veterinarian, this piqued my curiosity: So does heat exhaustion happen after chasing down a perp in a brutal climate? Or does it happen by accident, as in cases like Wix’s?

After Googling some of the names on the list of the year’s dead, I came across Zane and Nitro’s terrible stories. And since I live in Miami, I was already well acquainted with the misfortune that befell Jimmy and Hector (two Hialeah K-9 officers whose off-duty partner unintentionally left them parked in his driveway all day).

By the time I realized that the Officer Down website supplies additional information about the dogs’ deaths (when you click on the K-9 officers’ names), I’d already Googled my way through 2014 and learned that almost none of the heat exhaustion cases were directly duty-related. These dogs died a preventable death in overheated squad cars. Negligence, essentially. On our dime. 

Here’s where I get to guess what you’re thinking …

How could this happen? Doesn’t everyone know how hot cars can get in the summer? What is wrong with these people?

When we hear of tragedies like these –– military, police, civilian or otherwise –– we rail against the ignorant and the self-centered. We recall those clueless people who leave their dogs in hot cars, windows barely cracked, as they run “short” errands, stop for a “quick” lunch at a fast food spot, or otherwise go about their daily lives, dogs apparently consigned to oblivion. 

They should pay for the suffering they’ve inflicted as a result of their ignorance and idiocy, right? 

Well, hold up … not so fast … Before you line up the firing squad, let me try to put things in some perspective with two quick points:

a) As it turns out, most car-related deaths are not the result of heat exhaustion. Though there are no firm stats on this, vehicular trauma is widely considered a far more common cause of car-related death. Which is to say that ignorance of seat belts probably deserves a great deal more of our attention relative to ignorance of extreme car temperatures. But we tend to discount it –– perhaps because the random nature of accidents is uncomfortable to contemplate?

b) While leaving a dog in a hot car for any length of time is incredibly irresponsible and potentially lethal, pets who succumb aren’t typically the ones left for brief stints at convenience stops. Instead, those who die tend to belong to owners who have accidentally forgotten them (just like most of the officers in the heat exhaustion cases profiled on the Officer Down Memorial Page).

Sad, but true. What’s worse is that these owners are typically those who are especially knowledgeable and inordinately dedicated to their dogs. These are people who travel with their dogs routinely (daily even), but who somehow became sufficiently distracted or disoriented so as to “missed a step” in their routine. With lethal consequences.

Many of these people observe a protocol (they leave the engine running in a guarded area). Some even have backup alarms (albeit imperfect ones). In fact, the very few people I’ve known personally who lost dogs this way (two veterinarians included!), commuted daily with their dogs and had recently experienced a significant change in their normal routines or suffered a technical glitch in their safety equipment.

Are these people negligent? Sure. But honestly so. It’s like when the unthinkable happens to the parent who forgets to drop the baby off at daycare. Conventional wisdom says this happens to drug-addicted parents and poor people who don't care about their kids. But the truth in the stats shows it can happen to anyone. (Socioeconomic status and level of education are no indicator.)

Anyone! Why else would being left in a hot car tie with gunshot wounds as the leading cause of death among fallen K-9 officers?

(According to my analysis of the Officer Down Memorial Page, between 2011 and 2015, 21 K-9 officers died from gunshot wounds and 21 were left in hot cars. This excludes a tragic, 2013 Texas event where 10 trainees died in one incident.)

There’s no intent to harm here. These are accidents … not crimes.

I mean, when a parent fails to buckle in a child and the child dies in a car accident, we blame the parent to some extent. But even then, we acknowledge the accidental nature of the event and assign a lesser degree blame to the parent, accordingly. When a cop or a veterinarian forgets his dog in a hot car, however, we dispense with the notion of the accidental. We go straight to, “How could they?” 

I raise points a) seat belts and b) the accident factor neither to excoriate those who refrain from employing pet seat belts or exonerate those who leave their dogs in hot cars. Rather, my goal is to redirect this annual summertime conversation from the realm of the it-could-never-happen-to-me blame game to where it belongs: the land of the rational assessment of the accidental. This seems especially urgent in light of the fact that vehicular hyperthermia among K-9 officers appears to be an accelerating problem.

Here's why:

The way I see it, The trouble with leaving dogs in hot cars is never going to go away as long as we believe our superior knowledge will protect us. As long as we think it could never truly happen to us (because we know better), we’re at equal risk of suffering the same calamity. 

As Mark Twain famously said, “It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” 

Which explains why the one solution that can help us out of this crisis (five police dogs in one summer qualifies as crisis, IMO) requires that we first accept that it could happen to us. This admission will not only help us become more compassionate people, it’ll help us all adopt inexpensive safety measures that have thus far been lacking among the K-9 corps and pet commuters, alike. 

While two of the twenty-one K-9 officers affected since 2011 had the benefit of heat sensing alarms (which reportedly malfunctioned), most police departments have not adopted this simple technology (offered by several companies, including Radiotronics, Criminalistics, and Ray Allen). In some cases, the fallen officers’ police departments had actually purchased the heat sensing alarms but hadn’t even taken them out of their boxes!

I mean, think about it: Our communities work hard to get expensive bulletproof vests on every at-risk K-9 officer. In fact, several dog advocacy organizations I've worked with fundraise exhaustively in support of this effort. By comparison, these alarms are cheap tools. We should demand that our officers use them. And if they malfunction, we need to find out what happened –– fast! 

Turns out cops and their in-car heat alarms are just like the rest of us. As with seat belts and our pets, it’s hard to adopt new safety measures when you truly believe the tragedy will never happen to you. (It’s even harder when you think catastrophes befall only the stupid and the cruel.) Because, as everyone knows, safety measures are only as good as the humans who choose to employ them –– or not.

It’s been a really bad summer for K-9 officers so far. But with your help, it doesn’t have to end that way. Send your municipal K-9 corps an email. Urge that they install heat-alert systems in all K-9 patrol vehicles. It’s up to us to let our police departments know that we understand their pain –– but that we need to see them visibly implement a clear solution to this still-escalating problem. 

I mean, it’s just as easy as learning to “Click it … or ticket," right? What’s so hard about that? 

-Dr. Patty Khuly