by Marsha Rakestraw

Every summer we read about multiple tragedies of animals (usually dogs) dying because they were left in hot cars.

Just last week a police dog in Georgia and another in Texas died when their human partners left them in hot cars. And recently a video of a man in Ontario smashing a car window to rescue a dog left in a hot car made the media rounds.

Despite efforts at educating dog guardians, these incidents occur regularly, and some states have started passing “hot car” and other laws to help protect animal companions.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, right now 22 states have “hot car” laws that “prohibit leaving a companion animal unattended in a parked vehicle,” though penalties are usually misdemeanors.

Only Wisconsin, Florida, Tennessee (and Ohio as of August 2016) have “Good Samarian” laws that allow people to break a car window to save an animal companion. Seventeen states allow law enforcement or humane officers to legally break into vehicles to rescue an animal.

Here’s a table of state laws that address animals left in parked vehicles, from the Animal Legal and Historical Center. As the table shows, legal protections are currently scattered and inadequate.

How to Legally Help Animals in Hot Cars

Sources like ALDF, the Humane Society, and My Dog Is Cool have tips for how we can help.

  1. Call 911 if there is an animal in actual distress. Give clear and specific information so that help can get there ASAP.
  2. Write down the make, model, and license number of the vehicle. Note the time and outside temperature and how long you’ve witnessed the animal in the car.
  3. Take video and photos of the animal and his/her condition.
  4. Alert nearby stores and ask them to make a public announcement.
  5. If it’s not an immediate emergency, call the non-emergency law enforcement dispatch number or the number for the local humane officer, if there is one. Stay by the vehicle until help arrives. If the venue has on-site security, contact them as well.
  6. If you see someone leaving their animal in a car in unsafe conditions, politely educate them about the dangers (and legalities) of doing so. Keep pamphlets on hand to pass out, with credible, accurate information about how quickly temperatures can rise in a car and how rolling down windows isn’t sufficient. Politely provide the guardians with alternative solutions. For example, Petfinder has a post with alternatives to leaving your dog in the car.

In addition to taking action when there’s an immediate need, we can work for positive change to lessen the chances that animal companions will be left in hot cars. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Distribute “hot car” flyers and posters, which you can get from certain animal protection organizations.
  • Continue to educate – whether via social media, letters to the editor, comments on blogs or news stories, etc. – take time to raise awareness.
  • Ask store managers to post signs reminding people not to leave their animals in cars while shopping or dining.
  • Help stores develop a plan for having their employees check cars in their parking lots on warmer days and calling 911 when they find animals in potential distress. (For example, employees who pick up shopping carts in the parking lot could scan for animals in cars.)
  • Some police departments are investing in “no K-9 left behind” units that use technology to alert officers when their dog partners have been left in the vehicle. Find out if your community has them, and if not, consult with local law enforcement about their needs and develop a fundraising drive to raise money to purchase the units.
  • Find out about local ordinances and state laws in your area. Lobby to get protective laws passed and to strengthen penalties for leaving animals unattended in cars.