{Legal Issue} Unattended Dogs in Vehicles

It’s been (ahem, cough-cough) over two months since our last Legal Post.  I know, we are slackin’!  Despite the fact that summer is winding down for most of the country, it’s still blazin’ hot here in Florida and today’s post is one that, truly, warrants attention at any time of the year.  One of our awesome readers asked whether there are laws surrounding dogs left unattended in vehicles and whether there is anything in the works to enforce this.  Here’s what Rich uncovered:


This is a great question and I was surprised at what I found when I looked into it. While there is no national law regarding this, there are currently (only!) fourteen states that have laws prohibiting leaving dogs unattended in cars under certain conditions. These states are Arizona, California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

All of these statutes prohibit leaving an animal (all cover at least cats and dogs, and some cover a much broader range) unattended in a car when it is a danger to the animal’s health. The crime is classified as a misdemeanor and the statutes provide for punishments ranging from fines between $50 and $2000 and imprisonment for up to one year.  California’s statute is the most comprehensive (go CA!) as it provides for certain conditions that constitute a danger to the animals health: extreme temperatures, lack of ventilation, or not providing water/food. Many of the other states cover the same conditions, but do not provide that failure to provide food or water is a dangerous condition.  For us Floridians, extreme heat is obviously the most common danger.

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In addition to the states listed above, there are municipal ordinances in other states that prohibit leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle. There is at least one instance of a state prosecuting someone leaving an unattended dog in a car under a Cruelty to Animals law. That case was Lopez v. State, and the state of Texas prosecuted a man for leaving his dog in a car parked in front of a theater where he was watching a movie. After being convicted he appealed the case and the appeals court agreed that this constituted cruelty to animals.  Basically, this means that just because a state doesn’t have a law specifically prohibiting leaving an animal in a car, doesn’t mean that they can’t and won’t prosecute people that do this.

As far as whether there is anything in the works to enact more of these laws many state legislatures, including Florida, are currently adjourned. So while it is unlikely whether there is anything in the works in these states, it is a perfect time to contact your local state legislator and tell them that this is an important issue that you would like to see addressed.  http://thomas.loc.gov/home/state-legislatures.html This is a page maintained by the library of congress with links to every state legislature’s website, where you can find contact information for your particular state representative or senator, or whatever they call them in Nebraska (stupid unicameral system).


Now, all of that aside, if you see a dog (or cat, or hamster, or turtle, or whatever) locked in a hot car, the best thing to do is act!  It can take as little as 15 minutes for a dog to die of heat stroke, so obviously time is of the essence in these situations.  Jot down the car’s information (color, make, model, license plate number) and go in to the nearest store(s) and have the owner paged.  Go back to the car and wait.  Best case scenario?  The owner immediately comes out to their car, thanks you for your concern, and listens while you explain how dangerous what they did was, they then swear to never do it again, and decide to donate $1 million to your local rescue of choice.  Since that’s not exactly a likely outcome I would suggest also calling animal control while you wait.  If they don’t act fast and you feel the situation is dangerous enough (the dog is exhibiting signs of heat stroke) I would then suggest calling 911.  Yup, do it.  They will probably call animal control and cause them to either speed up or you might get lucky and a nearby officer would hear the call and respond.  Whatever you do, don’t leave the dog until he is safe.

Well, until next time folks!

7 thoughts on “{Legal Issue} Unattended Dogs in Vehicles

  1. This was a happy ending, but I saw a dog in a parked car outside the Fed Ex office. I pulled up next to the car and the dog seemed fine. I waited about 5 minutes and the owner came out. I just told her I was waiting to make sure someone came out soon and didn’t make the pup stay in the car long (the windows were only cracked about an inch or two). She said she was only in for a couple minutes, but thanked me for my concern.

  2. This is an ongoing problem and needs to be addressed by all states’ legislatures. It should be treated severely as should all forms of animal abuse with adequate fines, punishment, and/or jail time as warranted. In addition to the steps you have listed in your article I would add, don’t wait for the animal to remain in distress while you wait for help. Help may be too late. Try to find a witness to the severity of the animal’s condition in case you need them if you are held liable for property damage (adding a clause to legislation to prevent liability would also be recommended). Break the vehicle’s window and rescue the pet. Ask someone to bring water and wet towels to relieve the animal’s discomfort. There is a small tool (ResQMe Car Escape Tool) you can purchase easily from Amazon that will break a window. It would be good to carry it in your car or on your keychain. It is also good to have in case your car becomes submerged in water and you have no other means of escape. I would never leave an animal to suffer in a hot car nor would I ever let someone else’s animal suffer while waiting for help to arrive. I have also thought about how urgent it might be to get the animal to a vet but I guess that’s something that needs to be addressed at the time. If it were me and the animal remains in severe distress after being rescued I think I would leave my identity information and name/location of vet and rush the animal to them. That is a hard decision to make but sometimes a few minutes can be the difference between life or death.

  3. Let me be clear, if I see a dog in a hot car and I cannot locate the owner within five min, I’m going to risk arrest and break a window to get it out. I’d rather pay for the window repair then risk that dog dying a senseless death!

    • Obviously I would do the exact same thing….I just didnt think it wise to advise others to do so because I don’t want them getting arrested and blaming me!

  4. Fortunately, here in Arizona, where the temperatures are pretty scorching half the year, the powers that be offer this helpful hint to prevent parents from accidentally leaving their CHILDREN in cars: “Put something important, like your cell phone in the back seat with the child.” Must be working because this year we have only lost 2 children who were forgotten in a car by a parent.

    Personally, my dogs are more important than my cell phone. While my dogs are all healthy and cool, I have fried a few cell phones…

    That people don’t have the intelligence to understand how hot it gets in a car, for dogs, cats, children, etc. continues to mystify me.

    • “We have only lost 2 children who were forgotten” might be saddest phrase ever. I’m with you, my dogs are infinitely more important than a cell phone. If only we could hold a world wide seminar that everyone was forced to listen, reeeeally listen to, all about responsible ownership, and loving your pets, and not breeding (or buying from breeders), and….well, it would be a long list.


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