Every summer, people leave their dogs in hot cars — sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes in the shade, sometimes with the windows cracked open, sometimes when it doesn't seem that hot out, and often not realizing how hot a closed car can get in those few minutes — and inevitably, the dogs die.
Unlike humans, dogs become overheated very quickly because they do not sweat through their skin. According to Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis — host of the PBS television series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life" — thousands of dogs die in hot cars every year.
But what should you do if you see a dog trapped in a car on a hot day? The answer is a bit nuanced, it seems, as there's a legal solution that could take too long and a moral one that may get you in legal trouble!
What is the Problem?
On a humid, 80-degrees day the temperature inside of a closed car parked in the shade can increase to 109 degrees within 20 minutes and reach 123 degrees within 60 minutes according to the National Weather Service. If the temperature outside is over 100 degrees, the temperature inside a car parked in the sun can reach 200 degrees. A study conducted by the Animal Protection Institute showed that even with all four windows cracked, the inside of a car can reach fatal temperatures.
In an example out of Omaha, Nebraska, two dogs were left inside of a parked car for 35 minutes on a 95-degree day. The car was parked in the sun with the windows rolled up, and the temperature inside the car reached 130 degrees — one dog survived; the other didn't. In Carrboro, North Carolina, a dog was left in a car with the windows rolled up for two hours, in the shade, when the temperature hit a high of 80 degrees that day. The dog died of heatstroke.
Leaving the car running with the air conditioning on is also dangerous; the car could stall, the air conditioning could break down, or the dog might put the car in gear. Furthermore, leaving a dog in the car is dangerous regardless of temperatures because the dog could be stolen from the car by people who engage in dogfighting or thieves who will then sell the dog to laboratories for animal testing.
Leaving a dog in a hot car can be prosecuted under the state's animal cruelty statute, and fourteen states explicitly prohibit leaving a dog in a hot car.
The Legal Response
Unless the dog is in imminent danger — where a few minutes delay could be deadly — the first step must always be to call authorities in order to help prevent “hot car” dog fatalities.
Lora Dunn, Staff Attorney at the Criminal Justice Program of the Animal Legal Defense Fund explains that "breaking into a vehicle as a private citizen may not only put you in physical danger but can also expose you to legal liability: Animals are property in every jurisdiction, so taking an animal from another's vehicle could trigger theft, burglary, trespassing to property, and/or conversion of property charge — among others.
If you reach someone who is not taking the situation seriously, hang up and try calling other agencies. You may be able to get help from 911, the local police, the fire department, animal control, a humane officer, a local animal shelter, or local humane society.
Also, if the car is in the parking lot of a store or restaurant, write down the license plate and ask the manager to make an announcement for the person to go back to their car.