Summer can be a beautiful time of year to take your pets out. But when temperatures start to get dangerously high, doing so can pose a serious threat to animals, especially if they are left alone in a vehicle with the windows up.

The San Diego Humane Society, a nonprofit animal welfare organization, says last year its law enforcement responded to 570 calls about animals in vehicles. As of the beginning of July, that number was 295 calls.

While it is not illegal to leave an animal alone in a vehicle, if it is subjected to conditions that put its health or well-being in danger, it becomes a violation of Penal Code 597.7, SDHS Humane Law Enforcement Captain Danee Cook said. Examples of such conditions include extreme temperatures, such as if a vehicle is parked in direct sunlight; no cross ventilation, such as if no windows are left open or cracked; and if no water is left out.

So, if you come across a pet inside a vehicle that appears to be in danger, is it legal to break a window to rescue the animal? According to California Assembly Bill 797, also known as the Right to Rescue Act, a person is allowed to break into a vehicle to rescue an animal if certain conditions are met and the person does all of the following:

  • Determines the vehicle is locked or there is otherwise no reasonable manner for the animal to be removed from the vehicle;
  • Has a good faith belief that forcible entry into the vehicle is necessary because the animal is in imminent danger of suffering harm if it is not immediately removed from the vehicle, and, based upon the circumstances known to the person at the time, the belief is a reasonable one;
  • Has contacted a local law enforcement agency, the fire department, animal control, or the “911” emergency service prior to forcibly entering the vehicle;
  • Used no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal from the vehicle than is necessary under the circumstances. 

“If the above steps are taken reasonably and in good faith, good Samaritans are protected from criminal prosecution of liability for civil damages,” Cook said.

Once the animal is rescued from the vehicle, AB-797 states the person must:

  • Remain with the animal in a safe location, out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle, until a peace officer, humane officer, animal control officer, or another emergency responder arrives;
  • Immediately turn the animal over to a representative from law enforcement, animal control, or another emergency responder who responds to the scene.

How to tell if an animal is in distress

Cook says possible signs of distress include excessive panting and drooling or foaming of the mouth, trying to hide from the sun in the footwell below the seat, vomiting, and significant lethargy to the extent the animal does not get up when the vehicle is approached. Cook adds that a dog “alarm barking” when someone approaches the vehicle is not a specific sign of distress. 

How to safely break a car window (if rescue conditions are met)

Law enforcement officers with SDHS try to break the smallest window, and in the window’s corner so they can easily reach the door handle or lock, according to Cook.

“Officers try to minimize scaring or injuring the animal as well as additional collateral damage,” Cook said.

The American Automobile Association recommends using spring-loaded tools to break tempered glass, while laminated glass is nearly impossible to shatter without specialized equipment.

Consequences the pet owner could face

If the owner violates PC 597.7 and the animal suffers great bodily injury, they could face up to $500 in fines and imprisonment, Cook said. The punishment is less severe for first-time offenders, who face up to $100 in fines, though the amount could be higher if the the animal suffers great bodily injury.

How humane law enforcement handles these situations

Upon arrival to a scene where an animal has been left unattended and is not in immediate danger or distress, SDHS law enforcement officers first use laser thermometers to read the temperature inside the vehicle and check if any windows are providing cross-ventilation, Cook said.

Then they answer questions about the situation, such as:

  • Is water provided and accessible?
  • Is the vehicle parked in direct sunlight?
  • What is the breed, behavior and condition of the animal?
  • Will conditions likely change, causing the animal to become distressed if left inside?

Prior to entry into the vehicle, officers will make a “reasonable effort” to locate the owner if conditions permit, according to Cook. The owner will be educated by officers on the dangers of leaving their animal unattended in the vehicle.

If the animal is not in distress and conditions are unlikely to change, officers may leave a warning notice or contact card, Cook added.

FOX 5 San Diego’s Sir Milo Loftin contributed to this story.