HARRISBURG -- Leaving pets to swelter in unattended cars could bring tougher sanctions for owners, while police, firefighters and others may soon have the authority to bust out a window to save cats and dogs in distress.

Lawmakers are mulling changes to the state's animal cruelty law, making it stricter and giving first-responders and humane officers approval to break into vehicles. The measure was approved unanimously Tuesday morning by the House Judiciary Committee.

Animal advocates want broader language that allows ordinary citizens to rescue animals, rather than wait for help to arrive.

“We would prefer language that allows Good Samaritans to take action,” said Elissa Katz, president of Humane PA.

While the bill is not as strong as her group would like, Katz added said she welcomes it as an improvement over existing law.

The proposal makes it a summary offense to leave a pet unattended in a hot vehicle and provides immunity to first-responders who break into a vehicle to save the animal. The penalty for a summary offense is a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

Before busting a car window, a first responder must believe an animal is in distress and make “reasonable” efforts to locate the owner. Once an animal is removed, a rescuer must leave a note and take the pet to a veterinary hospital.

On an 80-degree day, car temperatures can reach 99 degrees in 10 minutes, 109 degrees within 20 minutes, and 114 degrees within 30 minutes, said Rep. Frank Farry, R-Bucks County, author of the legislation.

Animals do not sweat and have no way to quickly cool off in hot conditions. Exposure can lead to irreversible organ damage, heat stroke, brain damage and, in extreme cases, death.

State Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Good Samaritans who see an animal in distress ought to alert police.

“They should call 911,” he said.

Sunbury veterinarian Dr. James Temple agreed with that as a reasonable solution. Temple said he’d discussed the issue with other members of the staff at Sunbury Animal Hospital, and they agreed that a challenge for a Good Samaritan would be deciding when an animal had been left alone too long.

Limiting the immunity to police is appropriate, he said. If an owner hasn’t returned to a vehicle by the time an officer shows up, it's more likely that the animal has been left too long, he said.

Temple noted the hospital hasn't seen any animals this summer in heat stroke from being left in vehicles.

Twenty-three states bar leaving animals in hot vehicles and provide immunity to rescuers, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center in the Michigan State University College of Law. In most, immunity is limited to police and other first-responders.

Florida, Wisconsin and Tennessee have broader laws that give immunity to any Good Samaritan who rescues a distressed animal.

Nesbit said it’s unclear whether Pennsylvania's bill will come up for a full House vote in the dozen business days left before the end of the legislative session.

Even if it doesn’t, he said, the bill will have momentum from the committee vote when the new session starts next year.

John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com