Protecting Pets in All Seasons: It’s the Heat - and the Stupidity (Part II)

Last week, I wrote about a dear friend of mine who found and confronted the owner of a Maltese-mix puppy suffering from apparent heat stroke in the back seat of a locked car.

But what would have happened had my friend not found the owner?

I know that she would have picked up the heaviest object handy and smashed a side window (hopefully in such a way as to minimize flying shards of glass). She would have pulled that puppy from the steamy back seat, dashed into an air-conditioned store and asked the proprietor for a damp, cool towel.

Some bystanders might have hailed her a hero, but the dog’s owner may have had other ideas.

Each day, people have to take drastic action to save another person’s pet from heat stroke and possible death. What happens next depends on the state in which you live - and the tenacity of local prosecutors.

Good Samaritans of Tennessee and Wisconsin will not be arrested, charged or held legally liable for breaking into a vehicle to rescue a companion animal. Last Monday, the California State Senate approved a bi-partisan measure that would shield people rescuing animals from hot cars from liability. AB797 is due to return to the Assembly for final action on amendments.

Even if you don’t live in these states, it is unlikely that any charges would be filed against you. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, prosecutors are wary of pursuing cases potentially loaded with adverse publicity and a scant chance of conviction. Georgia law, for example, does not allow one to break into a hot car to save a dog. However, charges of criminal trespassing against Athens resident, Michael Hammons, were dropped last year after he was arrested for breaking into a Mustang to rescue a Pomeranian-mix in distress. The driver, meanwhile, was cited for animal endangerment. If the driver was in New Hampshire and this was his second offense, he would have been slapped with a felony.

Currently, 22 states carry statutes that either prohibit confinement of an animal to a vehicle or provide civil immunity to rescuers who “break and enter” to save a life - under certain conditions.  Some laws are explicit, others more vague. Factors include: 1) confinement of the unattended animal in a parked or stationary vehicle, 2) whether or not there is adequate ventilation, 3) extreme heat or cold, and, 4) access to food and water. The dividing line between legal liability for pet owner and Good Samaritan is whether the combination of above factors pose imminent injury or death to the animal.

What constitutes “extreme” temperatures and “adequate” ventilation may be open to interpretation. Still, there’s no denying how hot the inside of a car can quickly get. A table compiled by the The American Veterinary Medical Association demonstrates how temperatures can shoot up dramatically in only a few minutes. Cracking the window an inch or two offers little - if any - relief for a confined animal in a hot space.

Even if a state does not carry a “hot car” law per se, a negligent pet owner could still be prosecuted. In the Texas case of Lopez v. State, a defendant who left his dog in a hot car to watch a movie in a theater was ultimately convicted under that state’s anti-cruelty laws. 

Short of smashing car windows, one should gather as much information as possible (make, model and license number of the car, location, condition of the pet), contact authorities, monitor the situation and wait around until action is taken to save the animal - even if that eventually means acting on their own.

Once extracted from the car, the animal should be immediately taken to an air-conditioned place, then gently cooled and hydrated before being taken to the vet. Younger and older pets, pets that are overweight or poorly conditioned and breeds prone to respiratory problems (short-snouted pugs and Pekingese, for example) are particularly at risk for heat stroke and, possibly, irreversible organ damage.

We may want to have our best friend riding shotgun for our daily errands.

But, to a companion animal, that hot car can be as deadly as a gun that’s locked and loaded.