Harford County is considering lowering the temperature threshold that a domestic pet can be left in a vehicle from under 80 degrees to under 70 degrees.
A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday on the legislation in Harford County Council Chambers, 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air, prior to the Harford County Council’s regular legislative session.
Kevin Cajigas, Harford County’s Animal Control Manager, said the goal of lowering the temperature is to raise awareness and educate pet owners about how dangerous it can be to leave pets locked in a car while the owner runs an errand.
High temperatures in a vehicle can cause heat exhaustion, irreparable brain damage and even death for pets,” said Jen Swanson, director of the Harford County Humane Society.
“We’re not going to give tickets to everyone with a dog in a vehicle, sometimes it’s just an educational thing,” Cajigas said. “If you’ve been inside a vehicle at 80 degrees without the air conditioning on, you know it gets pretty hot.”
At 80 degrees outside, the temperature inside a vehicle can reach 99 degrees in 10 minutes and 114 in about 30 minutes, according to research from San Francisco State University.
Even at 70 degrees, temperatures inside a vehicle can escalate quickly. According to the same study, when the exterior temperature is 70 degrees, the interior temperature of a car can reach 89 degrees in 10 minutes, 99 degrees in 20 minutes and 104 degrees in a half-hour.
But the 70-degree threshold can give animal control a bit more time to respond, since distressed animals may not be spotted until temperatures have already begun to increase in the vehicle.
“In a place like Maryland where the weather changes so constantly, we just want to make we are doing the right thing for the animals and the people who own them,” Cajigas said.
“We are trying to be more cautious before we have any fatalities.”
Animal control, which falls under the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, responded to 23 calls for dogs in vehicles last year. That number does not include any response from municipal police agencies like Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, Cajigas said.
When the weather improves, people tend to take their pets with them to run errands. For example, Cajigas said, they may take their dog to the park, then decide to go grocery shopping and leave their pet in the car.
Swanson met with members of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office about county codes regarding animals in 2016, when the idea of lowing the temperature to 70 degrees was first discussed she said.
“You can’t leave child in your car, but you still can, in this day in age, leave your animal in your vehicle,” Swanson said.
“Don’t leave your pets in the car. They are living beings, they will suffer just like a person. Unless you can take your pet inside wherever you are going, leave them at home.”
No animals have died in Harford County as a result of being left in a hot car during his three years as the animal control manager, but Cajigas said “we had a couple close calls.”
Maryland is one of 28 states that have laws either prohibiting leaving an animal in confined vehicle under dangerous conditions or that protect citizens from being sued if they rescue a distressed animal from a vehicle, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University.
State law states a domestic animal may not be left unattended in a standing or parked vehicle “in a matter that endangers the health or safety” of the animal, but does not specify a temperature.
Neither state law or Harford County’s proposal applies to agricultural animals, only domestic pets like dogs and cats.
Someone found in violation of the state law can be fined up to $70. Maryland law also allows for the use of reasonable force to remove an animal from a vehicle, so long as the person doing so is a law enforcement, animal control or public safety officer.
Reasonable force in Harford County, Cajigas said, typically is a deputy using a lock out tool, to jimmy open the door when officers are called to a scene with a distressed animal.
“Right now, we haven’t broken any windows,” he said.
If someone does see a distressed animal in a vehicle, Cajigas said to call 911 and either police or animal control officer will respond. People should not attempt to rescue the animal themselves.
“We are trained to see signs of distress,” he said. “In that kind of environment, we don’t want anyone to get bit or cut or anything like that.”