With weather systems delivering punishingly low temperatures – along with ice, snow, and wind – deaths from the cold cycle are mounting, including animal victims. Heartbreaking images on social media, of dogs left outside and frozen, are almost too much to bear. Yesterday, People.com reported a gut-wrenching story of a black lab mix in Illinois who lived outside and gave birth to eight puppies in this frigid weather. Seven puppies succumbed to the bitter temperatures and winds, but the mother dog and one of her offspring survived, barely. In Ohio, a dog froze to death after being left outside in a doghouse that had no insulation. In Connecticut, cold claimed the life of a chained dog already malnourished and covered in feces.
Our instinct, upon seeing these images, is to avert our eyes because it’s so painful. But we should not be bystanders as the drama unfolds in backyards and fields and other settings in our communities. We can bring relief to these animals.
Through The HSUS’s Law Enforcement Training Center, we train officers across the country on many cruelty issues, including how to assess whether a dog has proper protections and how to pursue investigations when conditions become criminal. Some signs of temperature-related shock include paleness, lethargy or weakness, excessive whining, decreased respiratory rate, frostbite, and shivering.
It’s also a time for state legislatures, as they turn to their work, to focus their attention on the widespread problem of countless dogs living outdoors, at the end of a chain. Lawmakers in Indiana, New York, and Rhode Island are already floating bills to help protect dogs in cold weather, and others should follow. A bill restricting tethering is expected to be introduced in Virginia this month. In Rhode Island, Rep. Pat Serpa, an HSUS National Humane Legislator Council member, has introduced a bill to strengthen the law against outdoor tethering. The existing loophole includes a number of exemptions to the 10-hour tethering limit for licensed hunters, field trial participants, or any person raising or training a gun dog or hunting dog. Do hunting dogs matter less than other dogs?
Advocates have also taken on this issue at the local level, working with The HSUS to pass tethering ordinances in their communities. To date, there are hundreds of local ordinances that address humane standards for dogs who live outdoors. Here, too, other communities should follow.
It is also important to work with dog owners to educate and offer resources for those who want to do better for their pets. Throughout the year, volunteer-based groups like Fences for Fido serve as a resource for local advocates and groups across the country to bring some relief to the volume of dogs in need, outside without shelter, on a chain or otherwise confined, only to be forgotten. This year in Tennessee, we will work to add an extreme weather provision to the cruelty code, which would prevent the tethering of dogs in egregious weather conditions. Many groups have been working overtime in this weather to bring relief to dogs who spend their lives outdoors, and to community cats who need shelter from the cold.
Here are five ways to protect animals in the cold weather:
Keep pets sheltered: Keep your pets inside with you and your family. Under no circumstances should pet cats be left outdoors, even if they roam outside during other seasons. Dogs are happiest when taken out frequently for walks and exercise, but kept inside the rest of the time. Don’t leave pets outdoors when the temperature drops.
If your dog is outdoors much of the day for any reason, they must be protected by a dry, draft-free shelter that is large enough to allow them to move comfortably, but small enough to hold in body heat. The floor should be raised a few inches from the ground and covered with cedar shavings or straw. The doorway should be covered with waterproof burlap or heavy plastic.
Pets who spend a lot of time outdoors need more food in the winter because keeping warm depletes energy. Routinely check your pet’s water dish to make certain the water is fresh and unfrozen. Use plastic food and water bowls; when the temperature is low, your pet’s tongue can stick and freeze to metal.
Bundle up, wipe down: No matter what the temperature is, wind chill can threaten a pet’s life. Exposed skin on noses, ears, and paw pads is at risk for frostbite and hypothermia during extreme cold snaps. For this reason, short and medium-haired dogs often feel more comfortable wearing a fleece jacket or sweater — even during short walks.
Rock salt and other chemicals used to melt snow and ice can irritate the pads of your pet’s feet. Wipe all paws with a damp towel when coming inside, before your pet is able to lick them or track it throughout your home.
Remove common poisons: Antifreeze is a deadly poison, but it has a sweet taste that may attract animals and children. Wipe up any antifreeze spills immediately and keep it, like all household chemicals, out of reach. Coolants and antifreeze made with propylene glycol are less toxic to pets, wildlife, and family. Be alert of any open garages that may entice your outdoor cat and may contain deadly poisons and other hazards. It is better to keep your cat inside during cold weather.
Dogs are at particular risk of salt poisoning in winter due to the rock salt used in many areas — often when licking it from their paws after a walk. Store deicing salt in a safe place and wipe your dog’s paws, even after short walks. If your dog ingests rock salt, call a veterinarian immediately. Several companies make pet-safe ice melt products, check your local pet retailer or hardware store for safe products to use outside your home.
Protect outdoor animals: If there are outdoor cats, either owned pets or community cats in your area, remember that they need protection from the elements as well as food and water. Consider making them a simple shelter with plastic bins insulated with foam and lined with straw. It’s easy to give them a hand.
Cars are one of many hazards to small animals — warm engines in parked cars attract cats and small wildlife, who may crawl up under the hood. To avoid injuring any hidden animals, bang on your car’s hood to scare them away before starting your engine. Providing water and seed to wild birds will also go a long way towards helping them survive in extreme cold.
Protect horses: Be sure your horses have access to a barn or a three-sided run-in so they can escape the wind and cold. While not all horses will need to be blanketed, blankets will help horses keep warm and dry, especially if there is any rain or snow. If you’ve body-clipped your horses, keep them blanketed throughout the winter. Check the blankets frequently to make sure they are fitted appropriately and have not slipped or moved out of place where other dangers may occur.
Give your horses access to unfrozen water at all times. You can use heated buckets or water heaters/deicers to make sure the water doesn’t freeze. Also, be sure to feed your horses more forage—unlimited amounts, if possible—during extreme cold. This will help your horses create heat and regulate their body temperatures.
If you bring your horses inside, make sure that the electrical wiring in your barn is safe and up to code, and that your barn is winterized so there is decreased risk of a barn fire starting. It is always best to separate the horse’s living area from any source of fire fuel such as hay or straw.
Speak out: If you encounter a pet left in the cold, politely let the owner know you’re concerned. Some people genuinely don’t know the risk that cold weather poses to their pets or livestock, and will be quick to correct any problems you address. If someone you raise these concerns with responds poorly or their animals continue to be in danger, follow our steps on reporting winter-time neglect.