Sometimes, people that are very passionate about a cause. It may even get them in trouble. They may say, “Well, there isn’t a jury in the world that would convict me if I did that.”

This often is applied to rescuing animals. A question I often pose to veterinary students is, when a dog is in a hot car in the sunshine, are you protected by law if you choose to break the window and rescue the pet?

The answer is the phrase so many people are intolerant of nowadays: “It depends.”

Many people hate that term “it depends” because it forces them to stop and think rather than just follow a moral compass of righteous indignation. People want simple answers, and they want to be correct in their thinking without a lot of work going into the process. They often want to wear their passion and appear to be more noble than others.

Let’s break it down, shall we? The biggest part of “it depends” one should consider before acting is the jurisdiction where the act will occur. It is true, some states and even cities or counties have laws protecting people who help an animal in dire need.

Only 14 states, (Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin) have statutes that apply to regular citizens termed “good Samaritan” laws. These protect people who try to save animals in a hot vehicle. These statues protect the good Samaritan from lawsuits, criminal charges or both. Notice it is “or” both, not “and” both.

Indiana requires a person who forcibly enters another’s vehicle to pay half the damages.There are 15 states who protect credentialed first responders. And of the total of 29 that protect citizens and/or first responders, all require one exert reasonable effort to contact first responders or the animal’s owner before busting windows and saving pooches if they are in distress.

Asking a crowd of hand-wringing bystanders if they are the owner is probably not enough effort. States like West Virginia and New Jersey have criminal penalties for leaving pets unattended in cars and during dangerous conditions, but they don’t protect the good Samaritan.

Idaho has no law protecting a good Samaritan rescuing a pet under harsh conditions. Their criminal animal cruelty laws are tough.

Washington is a little vague which in law means complicated. RCW 16.52.340 addresses “any animal” left unattended in a motor vehicle or enclosed space. It gives animal control and law enforcement officers the authority to use “any means reasonable,” to effect rescue and they are protected from liability for property damage.

In Washington, the situation also must be one where the officer is concerned that, “… the animal could be harmed or killed by exposure to excessive heat, cold, lack of ventilation or lack of necessary water.”

Some may think the law favors the negligent owner. Not so. Every state has criminal penalties for animal neglect and cruelty that can and do come into play.

Consider that recently in Sandusky, Ohio, a woman with mental health/drug problems wanted to punish her pit bull mix. She locked him up in her car in the sun. Citizens called the police and they came running. What they found was a horrific site where the dog died.

Ohio’s laws concerning rescue? They are some of the most forgiving in the nation for good Samaritans but there are certain things one must do to remain legally safe.

Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email

Recommended for you