Animals, like children, are considered helpless creatures when put in a situation such as being stuck in an unattended vehicle. The life of an animal is in the hands of the person who left her in the car; anyone who leaves an animal without taking proper precautions may be held liable for their negligence that resulted in the animal’s injury or death.

Animals who are left in vehicles are exposed to serious health risks, most commonly, hyperthermia. Heat stroke can cause severe dehydration, organ failure, brain damage, and death. Humans can experience the same health risks as animals, but it is important to remember that animals also have a fur coat.

In high temperatures, and especially without ventilation, heat stroke and death are likely. Even an outside air temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit can quickly escalate inside a car, and cause a threat to the health and well-being of an animal.

An air temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit can cause the temperature inside a car to reach 102 degrees within ten minutes, and 120 degrees within a half hour.

Leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle is typically regulated by local ordinances and municipal codes. Anyone who leaves an animal without adequate ventilation, or in extreme temperature conditions will be prosecuted.

Though penalties for leaving an animal unattended can be severe, they are not as severe as leaving a child alone in a vehicle.

What is Considered an “Animal”?

While this seems like an obvious question, the law varies in its language as to what is considered an animal. Some jurisdictions make mention of dogs and cats, while others will make broad references to animals or mammals.

It’s important to check your local law, but in general it is safe to assume that dogs, cats, and any commonly kept pets would be considered "animals" under the law. If the animal can fit in your car and be locked in with the windows shut, then it is likely that they will fall under the definition of "animal."

What Can a Police Officer Do to Enforce a Law Regarding an Animal in a Vehicle?

If you have broken an animal cruelty law by leaving an animal unattended in your vehicle, a police officer may be permitted to smash your window to rescue the animal. It is also possible that a police officer may take custody of the animal.

Can I Be Punished for Leaving an Animal in a Vehicle?

Yes. It is possible that you may be punished for leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle. Most cases involve remorseful pet owners who accidentally left their dog in a hot car, and these are usually treated as misdemeanor cases. In circumstances of intentional animal cruelty, prosecution and its associated penalties will be much more severe.

If I am Charged with a Crime, are There Any Defenses?

If you have been charged with the crime of leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle, your lawyer may be able to use any one of the following defenses:

  • Actual Danger: The animal must have been in actual danger. If you ran into a store for  a few minutes and left your windows cracked, you would be able to show that your pet was not in actual danger.
  • Statute Language: If the animal that was left in the car was not specified in the language of the statute, your lawyer may be able to argue that the law does not apply.
  • Other defenses such as having just given the animal a drink and knowing that you would return to the car before it would need another drink, or that the weather was mild enough for cracked windows, may also be used as defenses to animal cruelty charges.

If I Want to Recover for Police Damage to My Vehicle After a Rescue Attempt of an Animal, What Do I Need to Show?

If your vehicle was damaged by police in their attempt to rescue an unattended animal, you may be able to sue for trespass to chattel, though it may be difficult. Trespass to chattel is the interference with another person’s property.

Since the government has immunity for certain actions, such as those necessary for their function, it may be difficult to show that breaking into your car to rescue an animal was not necessary and part of their duty of care.

It may also be difficult to bring a lawsuit because of contributory negligence. By leaving the animal unattended in your car, it is said that you caused your own car to be damaged because of your contributory negligence.

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you have been charged with the crime of leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Especially if your car was broken into, your pet was removed, and put into police/city custody. A lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights, help you build your case, and represent your best interests in court.