What To Do If You See A Pet In A Hot Car, or Left In The Heat
Updated: Jun 17
Steps to take, symptoms of heatstroke, state law, and valuable insight you may gain in advance, so that you can make informed decisions quickly.
We've heard the story time and time again; a pet owner drives to the store or a restaurant with a beloved pet, lowers the windows an inch or two, and leaves them locked in the car. They think it will be fine because, "it's not that hot outside," "the car is parked in the shade, or "it will only take a few minutes." For the owner, it's simply a shopping trip or brunch in a temperature controlled environment. For their trapped and defenseless animal, it's a nightmare. When we stumble across a pet in a hot car or tethered out in the blazing sun, it can be a nervewracking experience and sometimes we just don't know what to do. Because time is of the essence in these situations, it is important to gain insight in advance. Below are steps you can take, as well as crucial preparatory information, that could mean the difference between the life or death of an animal left to suffer in the sweltering heat.
1. If It's An 'Emergency' - Call 911
We must always act quickly, as every minute an animal is left in a hot vehicle significantly increases their risk of injury. If you believe the animal is in immediate danger of injury or death call 911 (see 'Symptoms of Heatstroke' below). Use your best judgement - when in doubt, call 911. Otherwise, follow the steps below.
2. Quickly Observe / Take Notes
The type of animal(s) involved and how many
Vehicle: Make, model, color, and license plate
Weather conditions: Temperature, sun, shade, humidity
The condition of the animal(s): Is there heaving panting, excessive drooling, disorientation, wobbly or uncoordinated movement, dark red or purple tongue, bleeding from the nose, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, seizures, or unconsciousness? If so - call 911.
Type of restraint, enclosure, or tether: Harness, car seat, crate, rope, chain, etc.
Type of shelter (if not a vehicle): Doghouse, shed, barn, etc.
The size and condition of the shelter: Is it falling apart? What is it made of? Does it have a roof? Is it providing shade? Is it ventilated? Is it big enough for the animal to lie down, stand up, and turn around in?
Water: Does the animal have access to drinking water? Does it appear clean or dirty?
3. Document The Weather
Take a screenshot of the current weather conditions with your phone from an app, such as your phone's stock/basic weather app, or The Weather Channel app. Try to get a shot that shows the temperature, weather, and date together. If you forget to at the moment, you can find records of previous weather reports here. Learning how to take a screenshot of your weather app in advance, will allow you to do this in seconds.
4. Take Pictures
Quickly take pictures of the animal, vehicle, and the license plate, and if not a vehicle, the outdoor 'shelter,' and/or surrounding area. Please do not trespass. Try to take photos from public parking lots or the street. You may choose to do this after contacting the police and while waiting for them to arrive, to save time. Do not post the images on social media, which will likely waste time and cause hysteria.
5. Contact Local Police or Animal Control
Contact the police department, sheriff's office, or animal control located in the town where you witnessed the animal(s). Depending on the situation and the dispatcher, they may advise you to hang up and call 911. Provide them the information you gathered. Write down who you spoke with and when. Wait next to the vehicle for the police to arrive and monitor the animal. If the animal is in an inadequate outdoor enclosure or is tethered outside, you may wait for the police on public property nearby, or return home. Be sure to advise the police where you will be. If officials do not arrive or resolve the situation within a reasonable length of time, follow-up with a call to inquire about the status. No matter the state law, always contact the police before attempting to remove an animal from a vehicle, even if it means to quickly advise them of your intent.
6. Try to Locate The Owner / If The Owner Arrives
If the animal is showing signs of heatstroke (see 'Symptoms of Heatstroke' below) skip this step and immediately call 911. If you feel uncomfortable speaking with the owner, you may also skip this step and wait for the police. However, it is important to note that some states with 'Good Samaritan' laws - which allow residents to break into a vehicle to rescue an animal - require that the resident makes a reasonable attempt to locate the owner first, or there could be consequences, including liability for damages (see 'Know The Law' below). It's also possible that the owner isn't aware of the dangers involved in leaving their pets in a vehicle and kindly informing them may resolve the matter. The owner also may arrive while your waiting for the police.
If there is a business nearby, quickly go into the establishment and ask for a manager or security guard. (If you are not alone, one of you may do this, while the other stays with the vehicle.) Concisely inform the manager or security guard of the situation, and provide the vehicle information so they may attempt to alert the pet owner. Promptly return to the vehicle. If the owner arrives, do not escalate the situation with anger, calmly advise them of your concern and hand them a hot car infographic or flyer if you have one (see #9).
7. Know The Facts
In a warm environment, temperatures are not only maintained in vehicles; they're intensified. According to a study conducted by the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University, when it's 70º outside the temperature in a vehicle will rise to approximately 89º within 10 mins, 99º in 20 mins, and 115º in an hour. Studies also show that rolling the window down is ineffective in keeping temperatures safe, even on a partly cloudy day. The shade offers little help in preventing rising temperatures in a vehicle, or enclosure, on a hot day and additionally moves with the sun; leaving an animal who's slightly shielded one minute, vulnerable to direct rays the next.
Air Conditioning Malfunctions
Air conditioning malfunctions can occur when left on in an idling vehicle. Between 2011 and 2013, 46 K9’s died due to heatstroke or extreme temperatures in law enforcement vehicles. Some of those cases were due to malfunctions, where the A/C either cut the engine off or started blowing hot air; demonstrating the importance of locating the owner or contacting the police even when witnessing an animal in a vehicle that's running. Devices, such as the ACEK9, are now sometimes installed in law enforcement vehicles, which will sound an alarm upon reaching dangerous temperatures, and include a door-popping mechanism to allow the dog to escape. Incidents involving law enforcement, and the need for such a device in itself, is a testament to the gravity of this issue.
How The Heat Affects Our Pets
Animals require a safe and consistent body temperature for their organs to function properly. Unlike humans, our pets typically don't have many effectively functioning sweat glands throughout their bodies to help regulate their temperature. The sweat glands of dogs and cats are predominately in their paw pads, while pigs have a few primarily in their snouts, and ferrets essentially don't have any at all.
Therefore, without a cool environment to retreat to, panting often becomes the primary response to combat the heat. When panting, hot air is exhaled forcing moisture from the tongue, mouth, and throat to evaporate, which cools the animal.
However, the longer in the heat, the less effective panting becomes. Fresh air and moisture can rapidly deplete, making panting an inadequate method of keeping cool during prolonged heat exposure, or when within an improperly ventilated area. Continued heat exposure will cause heat exhaustion, which can rapidly lead to heatstroke if unprevented. If heatstroke is not treated quickly, it can cause organ failure, brain damage, and death.
Symptoms of Heatstroke
(some symptoms will also be present with heat exhaustion)
Increased heart rate
Dark red or purple tongue (a sign of dehydration or lack of sufficient oxygen)
Wobbly gait; lack of coordination
Lethargy or weakness
Death of liver cells
Respiratory arrest; lack of breathing
Cardiac arrest; heart's inability to contract
Loss of consciousness
Keeping Pets Safe In The Heat - HSUS Tips
8. Know The Law
There are generally three types of hot car laws: restrictions on leaving animals in vehicles; laws that allow law enforcement and officials to rescue animals from vehicles; and 'Good Samaritan' laws that enable residents to make such a rescue without risk of liability for vehicle damages. 'Good Samaritan' laws often require that the animal is in immediate danger of severe injury or death, that the resident first makes a reasonable effort to locate the owner, contacts the police, and ensures the vehicle isn't unlocked before causing any damages.
NH Hot Car Law [RSA 644:8-aa]: It is unlawful 'to confine an animal in a motor vehicle, or other enclosed space, in which the temperature is either so high or so low as to cause serious harm to the animal.' Law enforcement may remove animals from vehicles if they are 'endangered by extreme temperatures.' A 'Good Samaritan' law, allowing residents to rescue animals from such situations was introduced to the State Legislature in 2018 (HB 1394) and 2020 (HB 1542). Unfortunately, they did not pass the House. Even if an animal is experiencing severe symptoms of heatstroke and you believe they may die before law enforcement can arrive, you may still be held liable for breaking into the vehicle, including the cost of any damages. Always contact law enforcement and attempt to locate the owner before taking such matters into your own hands.
Not in NH? Click here for the hot car laws in your state.
Many states do not require that owners allow their pets inside their homes, and do not limit the amount of time a dog is left tethered outside. In NH, pets can lawfully be left outside 24/7, despite a weather advisory. However, there are some requirements regarding shelter from the sun, rain, and ventilation, which law enforcement may use as a tool to help animals suffering from heat exposure.
NH Canine Shelter Law [RSA 644:8, II-a]: The law requires that 'shelters' (which can be a 'natural or artificial area') 'provides protection from the direct sunlight and adequate air circulation when that sunlight is likely to cause heat exhaustion.' Shelter from the weather must 'allow the dog to remain clean and dry.' The shelter must also be 'structurally sound,' and allow the 'dog the ability to stand up, turn around and lie down, and be of proportionate size as to allow the natural body heat of the dog to be retained.'
NH Equine Shelter Law [RSA 435:14]: This law mandates that horses are provided with 'an adequately ventilated, dry barn with stalls of sufficient size so that the horse is able to lie down,' and 'adequate and suitable exercise in arenas, barnyards, paddocks or pastures;' or are provided with 'a roofed shelter with at least 3 sides, from November 1 through April 15.' Horses in those shelters, 'must not be kept tied but shall be able to move around freely.'
9. Keep Hot Car Flyers In Your Vehicle and Share Them With Friends
These handouts can be printed and shared with pet owners for general awareness, or to concisely provide information when an animal is found in a vehicle.
10. Share An Investigation Guide With Local Police
You may contact your local police department or animal control officer and provide them with an investigation guide, which will assist them when facing animal cruelty cases involving heat-related illness or death.
Protecting Animals Now and In The Future
When it comes to animals in the heat, each passing second can mean the difference between safety and suffering, and life and death. With many states not having 'Good Samaritan' vehicle laws, or limitations on the amount of time pets are left outside, it is evident that laws continue to be in need of enhancement.
However, do not allow that to deter you from following the above steps and contacting law enforcement with your concerns. Not only does reporting such incidents increase the chances of an animal surviving heat exhaustion, but it also contributes towards changing the inefficient laws that allowed them to suffer in the first place.
Null, J.; McLaren, C.; and Quinn, J., 2005, "Heat Stress From Enclosed Vehicles: Moderate Ambient Temperatures Cause Significant Temperature Rise in Enclosed Vehicles," Division of Emergency Medicine, Stanford University; and the Department of Geoscience, San Francisco State University, Pediatrics Volume 116 No. 1;
Gibbs, L.; Lawrence, D.; Kohn, M., 1995, "Heat Exposure In An Enclosed Automobile," Louisiana Office of Public Health, Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, Volume 147(12);
Adam Rodewald, "46 police dogs died in hot squad cars", USA Today Network-Wisconsin, 2015, http://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/story/news/investigations/2015/10/09/46-police-dogs-died-hot-squad-cars-since-2011/73476592/, Last visited July, 2019;
"K9 Heat Alarm Systems (Hot n’ Pop)", https://projectpawsalive.org/the-equipment/k9-heat-alarms/, Last visited July, 2019
American Veterinary Medical Association, "Pets In Vehicles," https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/pets-in-vehicles.aspx
PetMD, "Heat Stroke and Hyperthermia in Dogs," https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/cardiovascular/c_dg_heat_stroke
PetMD, "Heat Stroke in Cats," https://www.petmd.com/cat/emergency/common-emergencies/e_ct_heat_stroke
Matulich, E. Ph.D., "Heatstroke in Ferrets," http://cypresskeep.com/Ferretfiles/Heatstroke.htm