Helping Dogs Left in Hot Cars

by Nancy Kay, DVM

With the approach of summer, as temperatures increase so too do my thoughts about what I will do when I happen upon a dog left in a car on a hot day. Inevitably, I encounter this situation at least once a year, usually in a grocery store or shopping center parking lot.

After peering through the window to see what shape the dog is in, I will have a decision to make. Will I try to find the owner, hang out by the car for a short while hoping the owner shows up (and if they do show up, turn the situation into a teaching opportunity), call 911, or bust through one of the car windows myself? And, if I opt to break and enter, what might the legal ramifications be? Would I be considered a Good Samaritan or would I be charged with a misdemeanor, or even a felony?

In researching this matter I was pleased to come across an enlightening article on this topic. It was written by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). Given that I live in North Carolina, I now know that contacting a law enforcement or humane officer right away is the best bet from a legal point of view. Truth be told, if the dog were in trouble, I suspect I would break into and enter the car myself, and deal with the legal implications later. Wouldn’t you?

Here is the ALDF article. Have a look and see if your state is mentioned.

By, Animal Legal Defense Fund

Even on a day when it’s 70 degrees outside, the temperature inside a car with all the windows closed can hit 90 degrees in just 10 minutes. On a hot day, the temperature inside a closed car can shoot as high as 116 degrees in the same amount of time.

What can you do, within your legal rights, if you see an animal in distress in a locked car? The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals, has some tips.

If you see an animal in distress, call 911. Most states allow a public safety officer to break into the car and rescue an animal if its life is threatened. Calling 911 is the first step to saving that animal’s life.

Know your state laws. More and more states are adopting “hot car” laws that prohibit leaving a companion animal unattended in a parked vehicle, with six enacted in just the last two years and two more pending. Although 20 states have some form of “hot car” laws, the laws differ drastically from place to place:

Only two states—Wisconsin and Tennessee—have “good Samaritan” laws that allow any person to break a car window to save a pet.

  • In 16 states, only public officials such as law enforcement and humane officers can legally break into a car to rescue an animal (Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington).

  • In New Jersey and West Virginia, no one has the authority to break into a vehicle to save an animal, not even law enforcement.

  • Legislation is pending in Florida and New York to give any concerned bystander the legal right to help an animal in distress. Pending legislation in Pennsylvania would make it illegal to confine a dog or cat in a vehicle in conditions that would jeopardize its health but only a police, public safety, or humane officer would have the legal right to rescue the animal.

  • Penalties for hot car deaths of companion animals are still limited. Most states limit penalties to misdemeanors or civil fines and infractions, even for repeat offenders. Maine and South Dakota’s laws don’t impose a penalty at all.

    Let people know it’s not okay to leave their pet unattended in a car.

    When an animal dies in a hot car, most of their humans say they left them “just for a minute.” If you see someone leave their pet in a parked car, tell them that even if it’s a pleasant day outside, the temperature inside the car can skyrocket fast. Cracking a window doesn’t eliminate the risk of heatstroke or death.

    For more information on keeping dogs safe this summer visit

    About ALDF
    The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, ALDF files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please

    Are you clear what you will do when you come across a dog locked in a car on a hot day this summer?

    Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
    Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award

    Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
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