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Protecting Children and Pets from Heat-Related Dangers in Cars

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

With warmer weather upon us, it is crucial to be aware of the dangers associated with leaving a child or a pet in a hot car. Even on a seemingly mild day, temperatures inside a sealed car can quickly rise to life-threatening levels. Obviously, children should never be left unattended, and many states have seen the need to specifically outlaw this practice with pets.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, temperatures inside a sealed car can reach 115 degrees, even on a 70-degree day. Cracking the windows does not significantly lower the temperature. Tragically, heatstroke claimed the lives of 33 children in cars in 2022 according to The National Safety Council, and several pets suffer the same fate each year. The American Veterinary Medical Association says that hundreds of pets die each year in hot cars. In warm weather, leave your pets at home.

Recognizing the severity of the issue, many states have enacted laws specifically prohibiting the leaving of pets unattended in vehicles under extreme conditions. In 20 states, including California, it is illegal to leave a pet unattended in a vehicle during extreme temperatures or life-threatening circumstances, with offenders facing charges of animal cruelty. These states include Arizona, Washington D.C, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

Of course, some newer EV models like Tesla and Rivian have a Pet Mode that keeps climate controls on and pets cool while parked. Some newer cars have a rear occupant alert that will sound audible alarms if it detects movement inside after the driver locks the car. This was originally designed to protect children, but it could apply to pets as well. But most cars on the road don’t have these fail-safes.

In 22 states, authorities such as police, firefighters, or animal control are authorized to forcibly open a car to rescue an animal in distress, typically by breaking a window. Additionally, many states have Good Samaritan laws that protect individuals from liability when helping someone, or in this case, an animal, in distress. Thirteen states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin, include rescuing pets from hot cars under their Good Samaritan laws. It is crucial to notify the authorities before taking action and ensure that the rescue is conducted with reasonable force and minimal damage.

In many cases the laws are written with language that says the rescuer must have a “reasonable belief” the animal is in imminent danger, so there’s some subjectivity there. It might be wise to take a quick video of the situation with your phone in case you need to explain your actions. In at least 20 states (including California), there are laws specifying it’s illegal to leave a pet unattended in a vehicle in extreme temperatures or other life-threatening conditions, and violators can be charged with animal cruelty.

Some states have specific criteria regarding the type of animal that can be rescued, while others have broader definitions. Livestock may be excluded from these provisions. It is important to review the specific laws and regulations in your state to understand the scope of protection offered.

As warmer weather brings higher risks of heat-related injuries, it is essential to remain vigilant and never leave children or pets unattended in vehicles. The laws in place aim to protect animals and hold individuals accountable for their actions. By spreading awareness, understanding legal measures, and taking responsible actions, we can ensure the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable members, both human and animal alike.


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