Helping Dogs Left in Hot Cars

Photo Credit: Genewolf, Flicker CC, Dogs in CarWith 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.

Get the message out with an ALDF sunshade.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has created sunshades that remind pet owners of the risks of leaving animals unattended in a car. The sunshades feature the message, “Warning: Don’t leave dogs in hot cars,” in lettering large enough to be readable from across a parking lot. They also urge people to call 911 if they find animals locked in a car and in distress. The sunshades are available at and all proceeds benefit ALDF.

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 visit

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

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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15 Comments on “Helping Dogs Left in Hot Cars

  1. Hi Dr. Kay

    I totally agree with helping dogs that are in distress. Last year, someone at my work left a dog that wasn’t even his in his car on a hot day without water or shade. The dog was panting frantically and was very thirsty when offered water. I tracked down the owner of the car and shamed him, and he took the dog home.

    However, I fear that this don’t-take-your-pets-with-you-anywhere theme is starting to go too far. People often freak out the moment they see a dog in a car, regardless of the dog’s status, the temperature, or the whereabouts of the owner. People are getting too into other people’s business when they don’t know what’s going on.

    I should be able to take my dog with me on errands, because I love being with my dog and because he doesn’t like being at home by himself. If I park in the shade and run into a store for 5 minutes, my dog will be fine. If it’s winter, my dog will be wearing a coat and he will be fine. My husband frequently leaves me in a parked car with the windows cracked while he grabs something from the grocery store, and I’ve been fine 100% of the time. While I don’t like to compare human needs to canine needs, I think the analogy works in this case.

    Sometimes people leave their dogs in their car with the A/C on while they grab something. This should be okay. I understand that cars can stall out, but if someone leaves their car running, they’ll probably be back in a few minutes.

    Telling people that we should never take our dogs with us anywhere is just pleasing the animal rights agenda that wants to remove all animals from human care. The fewer places we’re allowed to take our pets, the fewer opportunities many people will have to keep pets in the first place. I, for one, would like to continue sharing my home with animals. They are a beautiful part of my life.

    Again, I 100% agree with helping a dog that is in distress. I simply feel that there is more to this sort of situation, and people shouldn’t be immediately breaking into people’s cars.

    After reading some other comments, I think signs would be a great way to go when leaving a dog in a car. I just saw a photo of one on Facebook that stated the dog had A/C on and was listening to Steely Dan. Humor always helps as well!

    Thank you for your wonderful newsletters. I enjoy reading them and getting better informed on animals.

  2. The State of Ohio just passed SB 215 into law which allows a person to break into a hot vehicle for a pet or child. It goes into affect August 29th. However, you must first call 911, check doors to see if any are unlocked and they must feel it is an emergency. A broken window can cause more problems if the dog isn’t in serious jeopardy. That dog could escape and get hit by a car, bite someone because it’s freaked out from the breaking of the window, air bags deploying (that’s a scary thought). So before you pick up that big rock….think first. Common sense folks.

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Thank you for passing along the advice to have law enforcement make the call rather than letting “good Samaritans” or nosy neighbors potentially do irreparable damage by smashing a car window.

    I would like you to address “what a dog in heat distress” actually looks like. As a professional dog trainer, sports competitor, and owner of a dog with clinical separation anxiety who takes dogs with her just about every time she leaves the house, I’ve had a few encounters with concerned citizens. In not one of those cases were my dogs in actual distress. Many people assume that just leaving a dog in a car leads to distress; not true. Many people assume barking is a sign of a distress: If a dog is barking, it’s probably VERY stressed by the visitor staring in, but it is NOT in heat distress! A dog quietly looking around with mouth closed is NOT in heat distress.

    At this point I’m pretty sure WAY more dogs are being distressed by self-appointed parking lot police than by being left in hot cars every day. This is in itself a serious problem and every article about dogs in hot cars should contain some balanced information to prevent harassment.

    The charts purporting to show how hot it is in a car as correlated with outside temperatures are demonstrably unreliable. They do not take into account the color of the car (light exterior color reduces heat buildup), shade from nearby trees and structures, shade from gear provided, air conditioning or fan in car, wind conditions, interior volume of car (large vans heat up a lot more slowly than a subcompact) and so on. The idea that if it’s 70 outside, it’s 90 in the car is a gross and damaging overgeneralization. With my cooling gear (mostly an Aluminet drape) I can keep the interior of my car COOLER than the outside unshaded temperature in most conditions in the Pacific Northwest. These charts are alarmist and inaccurate and they do incite people to interfere where there is no problem.

    By the way, I do have and use cooling gear, and have a laminated sign with information including my mobile number in case someone is concerned.

    As a dog behavior consultant I am now starting to see the occasional case where a healthy dog is now developing serious aggression in the car because of harassment by people who were convinced the dog must be abused because it was left in a car at a safe temperature. Can we please not contribute to this?

    Thank you.

  4. I arrived home, at our orchard, one night late. I was unloading groceries. My dogs, happy to see me, jumped into the car, when I clos

    A tow man told me that in many cars, if the window is crashed with a rock, the airbags will release. Airbags can kill a dog. Be Careful.

  5. Hi Suzanne,

    Thanks for providing this thoughtful perspective. I’m wondering if it might be worthwhile placing a sign under your windshield wiper or on your dash letting Good Samaritans know that you are aware of the heat and will return in 5 minutes.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy

  6. I also carry cards that the local Human Society provides that warn of the dangers, and have the temperature info: ie., if it’s 70 outside, it’s 90 inside, etc. I put those on every car I see with a dog in it, even if the windows are down, car’s in the shade, etc., just to be providing education and a reminder in case the next time it’s not so favorable.

    Going into a store to have the management make an announcement can be tricky; if there is only one store, then you have a pretty good chance they’re in there, but not necessarily. I once saw a huge GSD in the back of a station wagon in full sun, panting horribly, and went into the grocery store that the car was parked in front of to have them make announcement. After waiting 15 minutes, during which I covered the back of the car with a dog blanket from my car to block the sun (another great tip!), I called 911 and they sent the cops and humane society. 45 minutes later, another car pulls up in front of the store, and the car owner with the GSD hopped out and claimed she’d only been gone for 10 minutes, and was very angry when I told her I’d been standing by her car for an hour. Worst thing was the car owner was a GSD RESCUE person!!! You can believe that I didn’t waste any time contacting the rescue, and ratting her out and sending pictures to prove it. I am a warrior when it comes to aiding and protecting the dogs of my planet!

    The advice to always call 911 is the very best, no matter what your laws are, even if you are allowed or decide to break into the car, you should be protected from angry owners. Just remember to say that the breakage of the window was an accident! (wink wink – oops, that rock just flew out of my hand while I was contemplating what to do!)

  7. I in no way want to minimize the danger to dogs in a hot car. But I have seen people go a bit overboard over this.

    In a few weeks, I will drive, by myself, with 2 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, on a nearly 1000 mile, 3 day road trip. In late June, it will most likely be hot. My dogs will be together in a Cabanna Crate, which has mesh on all 4 sides plus the top. It does not hold in their body heat the way a plastic airline kennel would.

    I take food with me in a cooler and either eat while driving, or pull off and find a shady spot and eat and walk dogs, windows all down. They are offered water at that time but rarely drink. But I do need to make the occasional potty stop for ME during those 3 days on the road! When I do, I try my best to find a shady spot but that is not always possible. I put all the windows down 4-5 inches, and I open the huge sunroof in my SUV. On the inside, there is a mesh cover that filters the heat of the sun, and it also allows hot air to escape. I have tried sitting in the car like this, and while not as cool as with the AC going, it’s not unbearably hot. My dogs will not expire during the 5 minutes I’m using the restroom!

    I have returned to the car several times to find people there, highly agitated, and trying to decide whether to break the window or call 911. Can you imagine what a nuisance it would be if they broke my window? I drive a foreign car and getting that quickly replaced to continue my trip could be difficult and time consuming. I would also miss my ferry and it might be several days before I could get a reservation, and with two dogs, the standby line is not an option. I understand their concern, but just because a dog is panting does not mean he ‘so having a heat stroke.

    So to avoid well-meaning people overreacting, I now put a large printed sign in my windshield that asks them to call my cell phone before breaking into my car, and I give them the number. I hope it works. I’m gone for over 4 wks and want my dogs with me. I know they are safe and not uncomfortable. I hope others do, too.

  8. There is an auto glass company in Austin that offers free replacement of any window broken when rescuing a dog shut in a hot car. My guess is that in most places, the most that would happen to someone breaking a window in such circumstances would be they have to pay for the repair. I’d take that risk.

  9. Please be sure the car is NOT a hybrid which could be on with the AC going and you not hear the motor running.

  10. I once called 911 from a Costco parking lot about a husky puppy left in a car with the windows barely cracked. The 911 operator said they had already gotten a call about it and that someone was on the way. I stood by the car monitoring the dog for at least 20 minutes and no law enforcement ever came. Finally the owners came out of the store and claimed they had only been in the store for a couple of minutes, which I pointed out was not true, and that law enforcement had been called. They drove off as fast as they could. I was so angry I was shaking, and would not have hesitated breaking the window if the puppy had shown serious distress. I don’t understand the stupidity of people, especially in this situation where one of the two people could have stayed outside with the dog.

  11. So, from reading the article, it’s illegal for law enforcement to break into a car to save a dog, if they are not one of the ‘legal’ states listed? Wow.
    Hope they don’t realize that, or they won’t be breaking in to save a dogs life, for not wanting to go against their own laws.
    I live in MA & have seen cars broken into by police on the news. That’s not one of the states listed as ‘legal’ to do so. Thankfully, they helped the pooches, anyway. Not after 1st trying to locate the owner, however, while others monitored the animal left in the car.
    They have a device that presses against the window & breaks it in seconds. Anyone can get it at a hardware or auto supply store. Everyone should have one handy, to break a window in case you are in water & need to get out. Sometimes, that’s the only way to survive, yourself.

  12. Dogs left in cars during hot weather send me through the roof. Even with the windows cracked that car is hot. Last summer while stopping to shop at a Kroger grocery store, I saw a long haired dog panting in a car with all windows up. My hackles went up as the dog appeared to be in distress. I went into Kroger and asked them to announce that there was a dog in trouble, gave the license plate and make of car. I was told that in Ohio (which is where I live) that Kroger has a policy of not interfering with a person’s property. I was horrified, returned to car just as the owner was unlocking the car door. I tried to advise him on the dog in the hot car but he just blew me off. It’s an ongoing war.

  13. First I very quickly go into the store with the car make and license plate number and let customer service know that the owner of the car needs to rush to their desk, as it’s an EMERGENCY. I then go back outside and wait by the animal, at which point the person either thanks me or curses me (it doesn’t matter to me whichever method they prefer, as I am not a happy camper regarding this situation). I have been told off, told to mind my business, yadda yadda yadda. This is not something I would lose sleep over. The animal matters, not the idiot who left them there.
    I also have pretyped “dangers of leaving an animal in car” info that I always leave in my purse and I then place that across their windshield.
    If the animal is in dire straights I will help the animal.

  14. As always, thank you Dr Nancy for educating us. It is really helpful to know I should call 911 rather than breaking into the car as I always wondered how I would break in anyway.

  15. I believe this penal code is still in effect in California;

    1. Penal Code 597.7 PC Leaving a Pet in an Unattended Car

    Penal Code 597.7 PC California’s law against leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle prohibits leaving an animal (or animals) in an unattended car doing endanger the health or well-being of the animal. Under this law, conditions such as
    •the weather (is the temperature too hot or too cold?),
    •a lack of adequate ventilation (are the windows open or at least cracked?),
    •a lack of food or water (will the animal become malnourished or dehydrated?), and
    •any other circumstance that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability or death to the animal
    In our county the Animal Control officers take the temperature in three areas of the car, and depending on the stress level of the animal will break in to save the animal

    Legislation being debated now may allow citizens to break into a car to save a pet.

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