On a lovely 78-degree day, it takes only a few minutes for a car’s internal temperature to reach over 100 degrees. On a 90-degree day, that temperature can reach 160 degrees. It is not surprising, then, that dogs die each year after being left in hot cars by owners who carelessly leave their vehicles for hours, sometimes just to run errands that take longer than expected.
The exact number of pet deaths related to overheating in vehicles is unknown, since many go unreported. Nonetheless, documented fatalities serve as stark reminders of the dangers for pets and the legal ramifications for owners, as in the recent case of a Florida woman who was arrested after her dog died while she shopped at Wal-Mart for 13 hours.
Is it illegal to leave your dog in the car in summertime?
It depends on where you live. Currently, 16 states specifically outlaw leaving an animal unattended in a confined vehicle if doing so puts the animal’s life or well-being in jeopardy. States without such laws may still be able to prosecute under general legislation prohibiting animal cruelty. Local ordinances may also prevent leaving an animal in a vehicle even if the state does not specifically forbid it.
The penalty for such an offense varies widely. In Minnesota, it is considered a petty misdemeanor with a fine of $25. In New Hampshire, a second offense is a Class B felony. In other states, the penalty could include a jail sentence for varying lengths of time, depending on state laws and the details of the case. California and West Virginia state laws, for example, stipulate a maximum incarceration period of six months. In Vermont, which carries the largest maximum fine of any state at $2,000, offenders could spend up to a year behind bars.
The majority of these states’ statutes provide for rescuing the animal by allowing certain individuals like police or animal control officers to use reasonable force to remove the animal from the vehicle. Rescuers are not subject to criminal or civil property damage charges as long as circumstances necessitated immediate rescue.
What to do about dogs in hot cars
If you see a distressed animal unattended in a car, call 911 or animal control immediately. If the animal appears fine for the time being, try to find the owner or wait until he or she returns. Do not assume that because the windows are cracked the animal will be all right. Temperatures can still quickly reach deadly levels.
Dog owners are urged to leave their pets at home when they run errands during hot weather; if they must bring their dog with them, they should leave the air conditioning on inside the car. Many cars now come equipped with a remote-start system, which allows drivers to leave the car and the air conditioning running without a key in the ignition. Cars without remote start can easily have this feature installed. A more low-tech solution is to leave one key in the ignition to keep the car running and bring a second key to lock it from the outside.
Even with the AC on, passers-by could still call 911 to report a pet alone in the car. So, at the very least, owners may be opening themselves up to legal risk and fines by leaving pets unattended.
Finally, take the opportunity to educate others when you can. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a flyer you can post in grocery stores or other public places to inform others about the dangers pets face when left alone cars.