It’s a balmy summer day, you’ve got some errands to run, and you simply can’t bear to leave Rover at home. You decide to take him along, and maybe stop at the dog park between the grocers and the hardware store. You park in the parking lot, tell Rover to be good, and that’s the last you see of him because when you come back an hour later, your car door’s been forced, there’s a court summons on your windshield, and your dehydrated, overheated dog is in the custody of the local animal shelter.
It happens to dozens of dogs and dog owners every summer. And those are the stories with the happy ending—the timely interference of law enforcement means that the dog survives. Many dog owners mean to be kind by taking their canine companions along on shopping trips. Unfortunately, when they leave their pets unattended in cars and parking lots, they unwittingly expose their animals to serious health risks and themselves to criminal prosecution.
On a moderately warm day, the temperature in a locked car can reach above-100 degree temperatures in minutes, and may exceed 120 degrees within half an hour—even if the windows are cracked. On hot days, temperatures approaching160 degrees are not uncommon. Being confined for a prolonged time in such heat can be deadly to a dog, whose average body temperature is 101-102.5 degrees. Even a 10-minute wait puts a dog at risk of dehydration, skin irritation, seizures, brain damage, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and, yes, even death. Parking in the shade, rolling down the windows a quarter of an inch or having the air-conditioning on prior to parking are not adequate deterrents
Puppies, elderly dogs, dogs with heart or respiratory problems, large heavy-coated breeds and brachycephalic breeds—short-nosed breeds such as bulldogs and pugs—are particularly at risk.
Most Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and some other animal protection agencies have the right to break into a vehicle to rescue an at-risk pet, as do police officers in almost all jurisdictions. The police and SPCA law enforcement officers may also lay criminal charges.
“If an animal was suffering, or had died, the owners could be charged under the Cruelty Statute,” says Lisa Weisberg, Senior Vice-President of Government Affairs and Public Relations at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Under the statute, a person who endangers an animal’s health and well-being through acts of cruelty or acts of neglect can be charged with a misdemeanor offense, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to a year in jail.
Cruelty statutes vary slightly across the nation’s jurisdictions, but the majority of the provisions are the same. Most of the statutes were enacted in the early 1900’s for the protection of farm and other working animals, but are broad enough to be used by law enforcement officials in a variety of cases, including the locked-in-car scenario. They posit that a person may be charged with cruelty if he neglects to provide an animal with “necessary sustenance or water.” Most are worded in such a way that an omission of action (e.g., failure to protect that an animal is protected from the consequences of overheating) that results in animal suffering is just as actionable as an actual act that leads to animal suffering (e.g. beating an animal or placing an animal in a situation in which it suffers).
Weisberg says the ASPCA prefers to work with and educate owners to better take care of their pets. However, the Society will lay charges if it appears the owners were purposefully negligent or if the dog’s suffering was extreme. Local police are not as considerate—they are increasingly likely to press criminal charges as a matter of course when rescuing an at-risk pet.
Most owners who act out of ignorance rather than malignant intent end up with a fine of between $500 and $1,000 and their dogs are returned to their custody.
Occasionally, however, the legal and long-term consequences are more serious. The courts, law enforcement officials, and SPCAs tend to be hardest on the people who, by virtue of their profession or expertise, should know better.
For example, in February 2001, a veteran Palm Beach greyhound trainer was found guilty on four charges of animal cruelty for leaving five dogs in his care—four of which died—unattended in 90-degree heat for three hours. The incident was not intentional—the trainer claimed it happened as a result of a miscommunication between himself and an assistant—but four greyhounds nonetheless lost their lives. The trainer’s career was effectively over; the court sentenced him to 18 months probation and community service at an animal shelter.
It’s not just in a car that pets’ health is at risk during the summer months. A backyard or dog-run can also become a death trap if a dog is confined for an extended period of time on a hot day without shade or water. And an owner thus negligent is also prosecutable under his jurisdiction’s cruelty statute.
If you see a pet locked in a car on a hot summer day, do not become a vigilante! If you smash a car window to save Rover, you can (and probably will) be charged with destruction of property or petty vandalism. But, if the dog is in distress, do call either the police or a local animal shelter with law enforcement powers. Most SPCAs are able to enter a vehicle and take custody of an at-risk animal, but the same is not true of all animal shelters or dog rescue organizations.
If the dog is not in immediate distress, you may prefer to leave a cautionary flyer on the windshield. Available from many local SPCAs and the Animal Protection Institute , the flyer—entitled “Your Dog May Be Dying”—informs owners of the dangers to which they expose their pooch by leaving him in a car unattended. It also contains instructions on what to do if the dog is suffering from heat stroke or exhaustion (in short: soak him with cool water and take him to a veterinarian ASAP!).
So, when the mercury rises, keep your dog cool, healthy, hydrated, alive, and out of your car—and yourself out of trouble with the law.
Cruelty Statute, New York (enacted 1909)
A person who overdrives, overloads, tortures or cruelly beats or unjustifiably injures, maims, mutilates or kills any animal, whether wild or tame, and whether belonging to himself or to another, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance or drink, or causes, procures or permits any animal to be overdriven, overloaded, tortured, cruelly beaten, or unjustifiably injured, maimed, mutilated or killed, or to be deprived of necessary food or drink, or who willfully sets on foot, instigates, engages in, or in any way furthers an act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or both.