We've all seen it before. There's a dog in a parked car in the middle of summer with no owner in sight. Maybe the person ran into a store for a few minutes or maybe he's been gone for a lot longer than that. In either case, the dog could be in serious trouble.

Even when it feels relatively cool outside, cars can heat up to dangerous temperatures very quickly. In just the first 10 minutes, even with a window cracked open, the temperature in a car can rise almost 20 degrees F, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After an hour, the temperature inside a car can be 140 to 180 degrees F (60 to 82 degrees C).

As an animal lover, what can you do? It depends on where you live.

The first step is to call 911. Many states allow an emergency responder to break into a locked car to save a dog if its life is in danger.

Know your state laws

According to Michigan State University's Animal Legal and Historical Center, these states currently have laws that prohibit leaving an animal in a confined vehicle under dangerous conditions and/or offer legal protection for someone who rescues a distressed animal from a vehicle.

But the laws differ drastically from state to state. Here's a look at how things currently stand.

In 14 states, only public officials such as law enforcement or humane officers can legally break into a car to rescue an animal.

  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Eleven states have "Good Samaritan" hot car laws, allowing for private citizens to break into a car to save a pet. Most of the laws require that the person must first try to find the vehicle's owner and contact law enforcement before attempting to break in. In nearly all the Good Samaritan states, the rescuer isn't responsible for damages, however, in Indiana, the person is liable for one-half the cost of repairs.

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

In New Jersey and West Virginia, although it's illegal to leave an animal in a hot car, no one has the authority to break in and rescue it, not even law enforcement.

Alabama and Kentucky have legislation pending.

Making progress

Dog in a parked car with window cracked Cracking the window does little to change the temperature in a parked car. (Photo: EvegeniiAnd/Shutterstock)

Hot car laws are becoming more common, points out the Animal Legal Defense Fund, with 11 enacted in the past two years and two more pending. Even in states without legislation, prosecutors are often reluctant to bring charges against the rescuer for public relations reasons. For example, criminal charges were dropped against a Georgia man who broke into a parked car to save a small dog.

In states without hot car laws, people can still be prosecuted under anti-cruelty legislation. In Texas, a man who left his dog in a car while he went to watch a movie on a hot day was convicted under the state's anti-cruelty law.

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Dogs in hot cars: Where is it legal to help them?
State laws vary about who can rescue dogs trapped in hot cars during the summer.