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-degree 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.
Is Breaking the Car Window a Good Solution?
However, if the dog seems to be in immediate peril, the moral choice might be to save it. First assess if the dog in the car is exhibiting signs of heat stroke - which has symptoms including excessive panting, seizures, bloody diarrhea, bloody vomiting and stupor - and if so, you may need to break into the vehicle to save the dog's life.
In September of 2013, passersby debated what to do about a dog in a hot car in Syracuse, New York. Just as one of them decided to smash the car window open with a rock, the owner came back and took the dog out of the car, but it was too late. There is no doubt that there will be situations where breaking into a car will save a dog's life, but breaking into a car is an illegal, criminal act and would expose you to civil liability if the owner decides to sue you for damaging their car.
When asked about smashing car windows to save a dog, Chief David B. Darrin of the Spencer, Massachusetts police department warns, "You could be charged with malicious destruction of property." Leicester Police Chief James Hurley states, "We don't advise people to smash windows."
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the police asked Claire "Cissy" King if she wanted to press charges against the woman who broke into her hot car to save her dog. In that case, Suzanne Jones waited 40 minutes for authorities to arrive before she smashed the car window open. King was grateful for Jones' actions and did not press charges.
Sadly, not every car owner will be grateful and some may decide to press charges or sue you for damages. For every person who would break a window to save a dog, there is someone who thinks her dog would have been just fine and wants you to mind your own business. You will have been morally right in saving the dog's life, but others don't always look at it that way.
Would I Really Be Prosecuted?
It seems unlikely, though not impossible. Onondaga County (New York) District Attorney William Fitzpatrick told Syracuse.com, "There's absolutely no way in the world we'd prosecute someone for trying to save the animal." Several attorneys in Massachusetts told the Telegram and Gazette that they could not see a reasonable district attorney prosecuting such a case.
A search of the internet and a search of legal databases turned up no cases where someone was prosecuted for breaking into a car to save a dog.
If prosecuted, one could try to argue the necessity defense because breaking the car window was necessary to save the dog's life, the dog was at imminent risk, and the death of the dog would have been a greater harm than breaking the car window. Whether such an argument would succeed in this situation remains to be seen.