Is it Legal to Leave a Dog in the Car?

By Chelsea Levinson - Updated March 06, 2018
Curious dog

In recent years, more states have adopted laws to protect dogs from being confined in unattended cars when the temperature is dangerously hot or cold. The truth is, your car’s temperature can rise very quickly on a warm day, making it dangerous for a pet to be trapped inside. One study found that a car’s temperature can rise nearly 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. Hot car laws are meant to protect pets from heat stroke or worse. As it stands now, more than half of states have some form of law dealing with animals left in unattended vehicles. These laws vary by state, and differ as to who can intervene when a distressed animal is trapped in a car.

Tip

Just over half of states have hot car laws to protect pets from unsafe temperatures in confined vehicles. These laws state that you cannot endanger your animal's health or safety, however most don't require specific rules of conduct.

Hot Car Laws

More than half of states have adopted some form of hot car law. Most of these laws cover a broad range of conduct rather than providing specific rules for leaving your dog in the car. Essentially, most hot car laws require that you not endanger the animal’s health or safety.

It makes sense that these laws cover a broad range of conduct rather than laying out the particulars. There are many factors at play when it comes to car safety for your dog, including temperature, time of day, whether your car is parked in shade, how long you left the dog in the vehicle and whether you left the windows open. The important thing to understand is that most of these hot car laws prioritize dog safety rather than giving specific rules of conduct for you to follow.

In most states with hot car laws, the penalty for violating the law is either a misdemeanor or a fine. Check your state laws to find out if there is a hot car law where you live.

How to Know When the Temperature is Safe for Your Dog

Unfortunately, there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for when you can safely leave your dog in the car. It depends on a number of factors. However, it can help to understand how the outside temperature impacts the inside of your car. One study found that a car left in warm temperatures of 70 degrees or more would rise 19 degrees in 10 minutes, 29 degrees in 20 minutes and 34 degrees in 30 minutes. So, even on an otherwise beautiful 70-degree day, your car can reach nearly 100 degrees within 20 minutes. Further, another study found that cracking the windows is an ineffective way to lower the interior temperature of a car. Keep these temperature changes in mind before leaving your pet in the car.

What can you do if you’re traveling alone on a warm day and need to run an errand with your dog? Park in the shade, use a front window sun screen, leave your dog with some fresh water, and check on your dog as often as possible. You could also leave the car windows open, but this can make your dog or your car vulnerable to theft, so proceed with caution. Further, if your dog is an escape artist and likely to leave the confines of the car, you will be legally liable for whatever havoc he wreaks.

Police and Bystander Intervention

State laws vary as to who can intervene if a dog’s health or safety is in danger while confined in a car. Most states with hot car laws say that only a police officer or other specified public official can break into a vehicle to rescue an animal. However, “good Samaritan laws” are becoming more popular, allowing anyone to rescue a distressed animal from a vehicle without facing legal consequences.

Good Samaritan laws provide you immunity from being sued if you damage a car while trying to save a dog. These laws differ as to what steps you must take before performing a rescue. For example, in Tennessee, you must notify law enforcement and search for the dog's owner before breaking into the car to save the animal. In Vermont, you must call 9-1-1 and determine that the dog has no way of leaving the vehicle before rescuing. Indiana requires that you pay one half of the damage to a motor vehicle if you forcibly enter to save an animal. Arizona and Colorado, on the other hand, have much broader good Samaritan law protections with no specific legal requirements before you can rescue an animal.

It’s best to understand your state’s hot car law, if any exists, before making a difficult decision about your own dog’s safety, or saving the life of another dog. Knowing your rights will protect you and your pet for the long-term.

About the Author

Chelsea Levinson is a J.D., researcher, writer and award-winning video producer. She has created content for Vox, AOL, H&R Block, Comcast, Bank of America, State Farm, Delta Air Lines, MAKERS, PBS, Levo and more.

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