California's Law on Pets Left in Hot Cars

The consequences of a pet owner, and the protections for the pet rescuer

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Last updated on June 16, 2022

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Pets have become our family members. They are the best of companions and want to come with us wherever we go. In the beautiful balmy days of California, nothing can be better than heading to the beach with your fury friend and playing in the surf for hours. But if you stop by the store on the way, you may end up behind bars rather than relaxing on the sand.

California’s law on malicious mischief includes a section on animal endangerment that lays out the circumstances and penalties for confining an animal in an unattended motor vehicle. It also has rescue procedures for concerned citizens to follow when removing an animal that is in danger. The law states:

A person shall not leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.

The law goes on to define what is reasonable: Basically, if any person passing by a parked car with an animal in it holds a reasonable belief the animal is in immediate danger, they are authorized to remove the animal. The law protects rescuers from any and all criminal liability from any forcible entry of a locked car. They must contact a local law enforcement agency, act in good faith, use no more force than is necessary, remain in the area with the animal and immediately turn the animal over to any emergency responder or police officer, but other than that, they are protected from any potential property damages assessed against them.

Studies have shown that temperatures in cars can rise almost 20 degrees in as little as 10 minutes, even when it’s cloudy, and that cracking a window does not affect this rise in temperature in hot vehicles. Since dogs cannot sweat to regulate their temperature, increases in temperature can be very dangerous. Dogs can suffer heatstroke and brain damage in short order, so that quick run into the store could be deadly.

What are the penalties?

Even if no great bodily injury occurs, the fine could be $100. If a pet is injured, fines quintuple and an owner could be jailed for six months.

Law enforcement are mandated to take the rescued animals to a shelter or veterinary hospital if necessary, and the owner of the pet is responsible for paying any and all fees, fines and bills accrued for maintenance, treatment or impoundment. The animal will not be returned to the owner until all of these have been satisfied.

On top of that, the law specifically states that it does not prevent any other law from being enforced upon an owner. That means that animal cruelty laws, neglect and other more serious charges can be levied all for the same incident.

Best advice: Ask yourself, ‘Do I need to take my pet with me right now?’ If, however, you’ve already found yourself on the wrong end of a broken car window, a missing pet, and a notice from law enforcement, be certain to contact a reputable and experienced attorney

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of animal law.


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