Russell Hebets Aug. 26, 2016

On a 70 degree day the inside of a parked car can get up to 95 degrees. During this especially hot Colorado summer, where temperatures outside regularly get to 95, the inside of a car can heat up to 115 degrees in just ten minutes; and despite popular belief, parking in the shade and cracking open windows does little to cool things off. Leaving pets in cars is a huge danger and we hear many stories in the summer of tragic pet deaths due to heat. While not formally tracked, it is believed that hundreds of dogs die in hot cars every year. So it is no wonder that concerned citizens have started to take matters into their own hands and break out animals trapped in hot cars. But could you be charged with a crime for doing so?

Which States Have Laws about Pets in Cars?

Arizona, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia all have laws that ban confining a dog in a hot vehicle. However, just because the practice is banned does not mean it is legal for you to break the animal out. In most of these states only the authorities may do that, so your obligation is to call it in and to wait with the animal by the car. In fact, in New Jersey and West Virginia, even police do not have the authority to break a window.

Currently five states have laws that protect good Samaritans from penalties if they break a pet out of a hot car. These are Florida, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Other states that have similar bills pending are California and Pennsylvania.

Even if you can legally break the dog out, you must be sure you have tried other things first, like checking to see if any doors are unlocked or if there is a way to push a window down rather than break it. It is also important to gauge the level of distress for the animal and if their owner can be found quickly.

What is the Law in Colorado?

While Colorado does not have a specific hot car law, municipalities do have animal cruelty laws, and leaving a pet in a hot car may be charged as such. In Denver, animal cruelty charges may result in a fine of up to $999 and/or a year in jail as per County Ordinance 8-131. However, it is only legal for the police to break the dog out of the car. If you see a dangerous situation with a pet in a car, then you can call Denver Animal Protection at 720-913-1311, or just dial 311. Be sure you can describe the car and the plate number as well as the location. It is best to remain with the vehicle until help arrives.

How Do You Decide What to Do?

If you happen upon a dog stuck in a hot car there are several things to consider before taking action. Is the car running with the AC on? Can you tell if the dog is distressed and to what degree? Can you find the owner nearby? Is there time to contact the police about the situation? Does the dog’s life appear threatened by the heat? Can you stay with the dog near the car until the owner arrives?

It should be pretty clear if the dog is being adversely affected by the heat before you break her or him out. Signs of stress include glazed eyes, heavy panting, vomiting, lethargy or a dark tongue.

If the situation is dire and you decide to break a window, be aware that you may be charged with damaging private property or some sort of criminal mischief; however, pursuing the charges is up to a prosecutor and they are usually reluctant to go after rescuers. And the fact is, most pet lovers would happily take that chance to protect the life of an animal.