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Is it Legal to Break a Hot Car Window To Rescue an Animal?

By Holly South on August 11, 2022 9:53 AM

Dogs are considered "man's best friend." We take them everywhere with us. But the love and understanding of dogs' needs aren't always unlimited when it comes to keeping them healthy and happy.

Every once in a while, headlines will flash "Dog Dies in Hot Car," and it leaves animal lovers wondering how one could possibly do such a thing. The truth is, there are measures that can be taken to save the life of a beloved pet if they're in a hot car.

All dogs are susceptible to heat stroke, some breeds more so than others (such as pugs or bulldogs). The inside of a car on a 70-degree day can reach up to 100 degrees in 20 minutes; rolling a window down may only slow down the process by a few minutes. Veterinarians recommend only leaving your dog in the car on a hot day if absolutely necessary (i.e., to pump gas or run in and grab takeout) for only around five minutes maximum. Otherwise, your dog may be susceptible to shock or heat stroke. It works the other way around, too. On frigid winter days, your pooch could suffer shock or hypothermia in a matter of minutes.

Animal lovers and Good Samaritans alike can help protect other pets from extreme heat or extreme cold in a multitude of ways.

States With Pet-in-Car Laws

Currently, 31 states have laws against leaving pets in motor vehicles. Those states are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Across these states, the laws regarding pets in vehicles vary. Generally, though, they give authority to emergency personnel to use reasonable force to rescue an animal that is left unattended in a parked car.

Even those states without specific laws regarding leaving pets in the car have some sort of animal cruelty or abuse law that may be applied to the situation.

Good Samaritan Laws

When it comes to breaking windows to save that poor pooch's life, there are currently 15 states that have "Good Samaritan," or civil immunity, laws that apply if an animal (or vulnerable person) is left in a car in extreme conditions. The laws generally allow you to use any reasonable means necessary to rescue the animal – which could mean breaking a window – without having to pay for damages or face criminal charges.

The states with these "Good Samaritan" laws are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is currently working on passing a similar law in Texas and hoping to see progress in the 2023 political season.

Those states without these kinds of laws may give authority to police officers or animal control to break windows without facing penalty, but many still require the animal savior — both police and civilians — to pay for damages to the vehicle. For example, New York has extended their pet rescue law to include firefighters and emergency medical professionals in their law that dismisses law enforcement from damage charges.

Some states requiring all individuals to pay damages only require restitution for half of the damage costs. Many people would gladly face a heavy fine or jail time to save the life of suffering puppers. But you might want to check your state laws before taking action.

Steps To Take

If you happen to see a dog left alone in a too hot or too cold car, there are several steps you can take before resorting to vandalism.

  1. Make sure that the dog is actually unsafe. Many pet owners will take precautions if they have to leave their animal alone for a prolonged period of time. For example, they may leave the car running with the air conditioning on, or Tesla owners will put their car into "pet mode."
  2. Try every possible way to contact the owner. Look for their phone number on the dog tag (if possible) or anywhere else on the vehicle. If they are in a store parking lot, try paging them at the customer service desk.
  3. Call your local law enforcement's non-emergency phone number and animal control. Report the car's license plate, along with the make and model, and ask them to help save the dog.
  4. Stay with the dog until help arrives. If possible, shade the window that the dog is closest to.
  5. If the pup is in imminent danger of heat stroke or heat exhaustion (using reasonable judgement), you may break the car window to rescue the dog. Remember that you may face legal consequences in most states.

If you are a pet owner and don't want your window broken when you run in to pay for gas, you could always leave your dog at home. If that is not possible, then make sure you take precautions to keep Fido nice and cool. You could also leave a note in the window to inform passersby that your dog is safe from extreme conditions, including the actions you have taken to shield your dog from heat. These measures could include the use of sun visors, cracking windows, leaving the car on with the air conditioning running, etc. You should also mention in the note if you will only be gone for a few minutes.

Generally, though, try not to leave your dog in the car at all. It could save both your car window and your pet's life.

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