Pet Connection: What should you do if you see a pet locked in a hot car?

It’s 69 degrees and cloudy at the beach, with a humidity level of 83 percent and no breeze. You see a dog locked in a truck with the sunroof open but all the windows rolled up. There’s no sunshade blocking the windshield, and the dog doesn’t appear to have water. He’s barking frantically.

Several news stories recently have reported on people breaking into cars to rescue dogs locked in, only to be arrested for their good deed. In response, at least one state, Tennessee, has legalized the act, making it an extension of the state’s Good Samaritan law — but only if the rescuer takes certain steps beforehand, such as searching for the owner and notifying law enforcement.

How do you know when a dog is at risk, and what should you do? Factors to consider include whether the car is in the shade, the color of the car (dark-colored cars get hotter faster), whether windows are rolled down, if there’s a breeze and the age and breed of the dog or cat, says Valerie Schomburg, animal control supervisor for Newport Beach Police Department.

Older animals or those with heavy coats or short snouts are more susceptible to heat. “Brachycephalic breeds like pugs have a hard time breathing anyway,” she says. “If you put an older pug in a black car with the windows rolled up, he’s going to be at a disadvantage.”

Look to see if the owner has made an effort to protect the pet from the heat, such as parking in the shade with all the windows open, covering the windshield with a sunscreen or the cargo area with an awning and crating the dog with a full water dish and a running crate fan. If that’s the situation and the dog is calm and not in distress, you likely have less cause for concern.

Use common sense. If it’s a summer evening, after sunset and dogs are in cars with windows open and the owners are standing right there, the dog’s not at risk. (Yes, I have seen someone raise concerns in just that situation.) If the dog doesn’t have a shady spot in the car and is panting heavily, drooling, seems disoriented or shows other signs of distress, take action. That can range from going inside a coffee shop or grocery store and having the owner paged to calling the police or animal control.

“Some people may be embarrassed to call law enforcement, but you want to get someone on the way who can do something,” says Temma Martin of Salt Lake City, a spokesperson for Best Friends Animal Society. “If it takes them 10 minutes to get there, that 10 minutes could be as long as the pet has in the car on a hot day.”

Schomburg says Newport Beach officers respond to all calls. “If it’s December and it’s cold and rainy, we still respond. We don’t ever want to make a judgment like, ‘Oh, I think it’s OK today.’”

Be prepared to give information as to the condition of the dog and the description and location of the car. If you can, stay there to flag down the responder so he or she knows where to go. Unless the dog is barely alive, it’s best not to try to remove him yourself. He could bite you or run away or the owner could have you charged with breaking into the car. Once animal control or police show up, give a statement and leave. Don’t get into a screaming match with the owner if he or she shows up. Let law enforcement handle it. “Between pet owners making good decisions and witnesses making good decisions, lives can be saved,” Martin says.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with