Owners warned not to leave pets in hot cars

Posted: May 18, 2013

The Winchester Star

Spy gazes out from its owner’s car. Animal control officers want residents to be mindful of leaving pets in hot vehicles.

WINCHESTER— With the warm temperatures of summer approaching, local animal control officers want area residents to be mindful of their pets when taking them for car rides — if they leave them in their vehicles.

The cruelty to animals portion of Virginia law states that “Any person who ... carries or causes to be carried by any vehicle, vessel or otherwise any animal in a cruel, brutal, or inhumane manner, so as to produce torture or unnecessary suffering” can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

That offense is punishable by up to one year in jail and as much as a $2,500 fine, according to Cpl. Nancy Mellott of the Winchester Police Department’s Animal Control Unit.

In addition to the state law, the city code makes it “unlawful to leave pets unattended in a hot vehicle even briefly” she said Friday.

The primary deciding factor for city police officers in determining when to charge an animal owner under the Winchester law — which allows the pet owner to be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor in addition to the Class 1 offense — or the state law is the animal’s welfare, Mellott said.

A Class 3 misdemeanor can result in a fine up to $500 with no jail time, she added.

Several factors — including the vehicle’s interior and exterior colors, the length of an animal’s hair and the outside temperature — can contribute to the danger faced by a pet left in a car.

Even if the outside temperature isn’t too hot, the air in a vehicle’s interior can be up to 40 degrees warmer if the vehicle isn’t parked in the shade, Mellott said.

While she isn’t sure about the number of complaints about animals left in a vehicle that are fielded by city police each year, Mellott said the department tries to educate the public when it receives calls to reduce the chance of such an incident recurring.

Most calls about animals in vehicles occur at retail centers in the city.

Mellott said residents can call 540-662-4131 and ask to speak to an animal control officer for additional information about the city law.

Deputy Megan Moreland, an animal control officer with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, said the county does not have an ordinance to address animals left in vehicles. Officers instead use the state law.

As in Winchester, most such calls involve retail locations such as Walmart and Target stores, Moreland said Friday.

“When we arrive on the scene, we try to notify the store or business to see if they can notify the owner over the [public address] system,” she said. “At that point we’ll assess the situation, how the dog is, the inside of the vehicle and the outside temperature.”

Once officers find the animal’s owner, they discuss the matter with him or her. “If an animal is in distress, [the owner] could be charged with cruelty,” Moreland said.

“If there’s a situation where a dog is in distress and needs to be removed, we take what measures we need to take to remove it and possibly transport it to a veterinarian’s office,” she added.

Officers also try to educate pet owners who leave their animals in vehicles since many are unaware of the state law, Moreland said.

If a person is found guilty of the Class 1 misdemeanor, he or she could have the pet taken away, in addition to paying a fine and facing jail time.

— Contact Matt Armstrong at marmstrong@winchesterstar.com