Leaving your dog in a car for “just a minute” can harm or even kill them. People are convinced losing a pet to heatstroke could never happen to them so they load the car with one or more dogs to run a series of errands that turn into multiple minutes or a half hour or more as the line is longer than expected or they run into that old friend who they meant to call.

What all dog owners need to understand is that a car is a metal box. On an 85-degree day, interior temperatures can climb over 100 degrees in only ten minutes and can jump to 120 degrees in half an hour. Even in cooler weather, the inside of a car may be as much as 20 degrees hotter than the outdoors—easily reaching 90 degrees on a 70-degree day. A shady parking spot, bowl of water or even an open window are insufficient measures to counteract the deadly effects of these temperatures. 

People sweat to cool down, dogs don’t. Bring trapped in a car means that the rising temperature increases their heart and respiratory rates and can cause seizures as well and harm to vital organs resulting in permanent injury or death. Every moment that passes and every increase in temperature dramatically decreases an animal’s chances for survival. 

In 2017 Wisconsin became one of a handful of states that allow people to rescue people and animals locked in hot cars.  The so-called “Good Samaritan” law is designed to prevent a person with good intentions from incurring a civil penalty for acting. If you see a dog left alone in a hot car, take down the car’s color, model, make, and license plate number. Have the owner paged in the nearest buildings, or call animal control or the police. Have someone keep an eye on the dog. Don’t leave the scene until the situation has been resolved.

If the authorities are unresponsive or too slow and the dog’s life appears to be in imminent danger, find a witness (or several) who will back up your assessment, take steps to remove the suffering animal from the car, and then wait for authorities to arrive.

Watch for heatstroke symptoms such as restlessness, excessive thirst, thick saliva, heavy panting, lethargy, lack of appetite, dark tongue, rapid heartbeat, fever, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and lack of coordination. If a dog shows any of these symptoms, get him or her out of the heat, preferably into an air-conditioned vehicle, and then to a veterinarian immediately. If you are unable to transport the dog yourself, take him or her into an air-conditioned building if possible and call animal control: Tell them it is an emergency. Be very aware of the fact that dogs in distress could become aggressive.

What happens to you for breaking a car window to rescue a dog or for delivering that dog to the vet? If you follow Wisconsin state law probably nothing. Here are the actual nuts and bolts on the liability you face for being a good Samaritan.

A person is immune from civil liability for property damage or injury that results from his or her forcible entry into a vehicle if:

  • he or she had a good faith belief that the domestic animal was in imminent danger of suffering bodily harm unless removed from the vehicle
  • the vehicle was locked and forcible entry was necessary
  • he or she dialed 911 or otherwise contacted law enforcement, emergency medical services, or animal control before forcibly entering the vehicle
  • he or she remained with the domestic animal until law enforcement or a first responder arrived at the scene
  • he or she used no more force than he or she reasonably believed necessary to enter the vehicle
  • if this person left the scene before the owner or operator of the vehicle returned to the scene, the actor placed a notice on the windshield with information outlined in the law

This summer, whether you’re traveling with a pet or not, please be extra alert to animals in distress—your vigilance can save a life.