06/11/2012 04:37 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Death of dog in Toronto car tragic reminder of need to keep pets out of heat

TORONTO - The death of a dog who was trapped in a sweltering car in Toronto should be seen as a wakeup call to pet owners across the country, animal safety experts warned Monday.

As temperatures soar across the country, so do the risks to Canadians' four-legged friends, they said.

Instead of shrugging off warnings about the effects of warm weather on their animals, pet owners should be the ones feeling the heat to take better care of their furry companions, they said.

A cautionary tale unfolded Sunday when a one-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever perished of heat exposure outside a suburban shopping mall.

Police allege the dog's owners left their pet in the car while they went shopping as the mercury climbed to nearly 30 degrees Celsius, only slightly cracking open a window to let in some air.

A passerby spotted the animal in distress and alerted authorities, but help arrived too late to save the dog.

Sudbury, Ont. residents Matthieu Arbour, 21, and Angele Lazurko, 20, have been charged with causing unnecessary suffering to animals.

Michael O'Sullivan, chairman of the Humane Society of Canada, said each summer brings its share of needless, easily preventable tragedies.

"I've heard every excuse under the sun for why somebody's dog gets really sick or dies ... and I'm just sick of hearing them," O'Sullivan said in a telephone interview.

"The bottom line is that animals are living, breathing creatures, and they depend completely on us for care."

Humans often fail to understand that their pets can't regulate their body temperature as easily as their owners can.

Marie Holowaychuk, specialist in emergency and critical care at the University of Guelph's veterinary college, said dogs and cats are unable to sweat to relieve the symptoms of intense heat. They're limited to panting and releasing small amounts of heat through the pads on their feet, she said.

While humans can experience several warning signs before heat exposure becomes dangerous, she said animals don't have the same luxury.

Within minutes of being trapped in a hot, airless space, Holowaychuk said animals can experience severe gastrointestinal issues that quickly escalate to multiple organ failure.

By the time an animal is experiencing convulsions or other neurological side effects, it's often too late.

Pet owners should be mindful of this when considering bringing their pets in the car, she said, adding leaving windows open does little to alleviate the animal's suffering.

"It's kind of like a greenhouse effect. There's no circulation, even with the windows open, that temperature can go up over 40 degrees in a matter of minutes. There's just no way for that dog to escape that heat."

O'Sullivan also cautioned animal lovers to adapt their day-to-day routines to reflect the outside temperatures.

Dogs may love their daily walks, but they'd be both safer and happier staying at home on truly sweltering days, he said. All pets will require extra servings of fresh, cool water when the mercury climbs, he added.

Pet owners who expect their animals to take walks, play or even relax outdoors in scorching conditions would do well to consider things from a fresh perspective, he said.

"Imagine trying to do any of those activities while wearing a sweater, and within five minutes you'd know exactly what animal is going through," he said.

Despite frequent admonitions, the message too often falls on deaf ears, he said.

One day after the chocolate lab's death, a Chihuahua was rescued from another shopping mall parking lot in Toronto after being trapped in a car for about an hour. The dog survived, and police slapped the owner with a $260 fine.

Brad Dewar, agent with the Ontario SPCA, said the public shouldn't hesitate to get involved if they see an animal in distress, urging people to contact either police or a local animal welfare agency.

Sweltering heat isn't the only threat to an animal, he said, adding even days that feel comfortable for a human can prove too much for an animal trapped in a car or tethered on a sidewalk.

One simple message, he said, can help prevent future tragedies — when in doubt, leave your pet at home.

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