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You see a dog left in car on a hot day

Should you intervene, and if so, what is your liability?

[From Tufts August 2010 Issue]

It’s a hot summer day, and you return to your car after shopping at the mall. As you look for your keys, you glance at the car next to you and see a dog inside, panting, obviously in distress. What should you do?

“First and foremost, a concerned citizen should try to find the owner of the vehicle,” says animal law attorney Jonathan Rankin, a graduate of Tufts University’s Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy Program. “Write down the make, model and license plate number, then track down mall security and have them page the owner over the public address system. Keep in mind that time is of the essence, and if the effort is not immediately successful, call the police department or local animal control.”

Temperatures spike
It doesn’t take a sweltering day for temperatures inside parked cars to spike. Regardless of the ambient temperature, the interior can heat up by an average of 40 degrees in an hour, according to a study by Stanford University School of Medicine.

Because dogs cool themselves by panting and sweating through the pads in the bottom of their feet, leaving them in a car can lead to potentially deadly heatstroke within minutes. “If the core body temperature rises above 108 degrees for a sustained period of time, a dog can die,” says Scott Shaw, DVM, a specialist in emergency and critical care at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

“The major effects on the body occur in the brain, the gastrointestinal tract and the ability of the blood to clot. Severe diarrhea is common since the cells lining the intestinal tract are very sensitive to heat and actually die if the dog develops heatstroke,” Dr. Shaw says. “Similarly, platelets and the neurons in the brain can be damaged, resulting in bleeding or seizures.”

Anti-cruelty laws apply
While no federal law prohibits an owner from leaving a dog in a car on a hot day, all states have anti-cruelty laws aimed at preventing the unnecessary suffering of animals. Leaving a dog in a car on a hot day could certainly result in a prosecution for animal cruelty if the dog suffers needlessly, Rankin says.

Only a few states carve out an exemption for law enforcement, humane investigators or animal control officers to use reasonable force to free an animal locked in a vehicle. However, for all intents and purposes, it is illegal for a private citizen to forcefully enter a vehicle and remove an animal whose health or safety is at risk.

What should you do if you see an unattended dog in a car and believe he is in imminent danger of dying? If the owner can’t be located and a law enforcement officer is not immediately available, should you break into the car and rescue the dog? Could you be prosecuted for breaking and entering?

“There’s really no precedence for this sort of situation,” says Rankin of Framingham, Mass. “Citizens need to weigh the seriousness of their act and the risks involved. For instance, if a person rescues a dog from a hot car and that dog then bites a bystander, that Good Samaritan may be held responsible for those injuries. Anyone who undertakes a rescue of this sort is really taking the law into his own hands.”

Rankin recommends taking the following precautions:

Ask people nearby to act as witnesses.

Document the incident with a cell phone or video camera.

Be aware that some car engines, especially those that are electric or hybrids, are silent and may, in fact, be running with the air conditioning on inside.

“Breaking into a car is obviously a crime,” Rankin says, “but the question really is: Does that person have a valid defense for the crime? If that person breaks a window, removes a dog from a car and saves his life, I don’t think there’s a judge or jury out there who would find someone guilty for rescuing that animal."

Karen Lee Stevens is a writer in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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