Each year, as winter settles in and temperatures drop dangerously low in parts of the country, we hear heartbreaking reports about companion animals left in the cold. Last month, in Clayton, Wisconsin, an extremely thin dog froze to death after being chained and left outside by his owner in bitter cold and snow. In Chillicothe, Ohio, a pit bull mix was discovered, his body frozen and stuck to the bottom of a metal crate outside the owner’s property.
We have sought to tackle this problem at different levels: by educating the public about responsible animal care and the need to protect companion animals from cold weather; by training law enforcement officers to respond to this problem, including how to assess whether a dog has proper shelter and pursuing investigations; and finally through changing state and local laws to protect dogs who live outdoors.
Ten states now have laws that protect animals from exposure to extreme weather. The latest is Virginia where, in July 2019, a new law took effect that requires dogs have access to shade during hot weather and a shelter with a windbreak and sufficient bedding material during the winter months. This victory was the result of a three-year effort by the Humane Society of the United States.
Many legislatures have just started their 2020 sessions, and our state directors are there, working in tandem with compassionate lawmakers to improve the lives of such dogs. There are now bills in Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire that would provide reprieve to animals left outside in extreme weather.
In a recent op-ed, Sen. Jeff Smith of Wisconsin wrote evocatively of the need for such a bill in his state. “I recently learned the dangers for animals when kept outside for extensive periods of time. Even their furry coats aren’t enough to keep them warm as their body temperatures drop and their paws freeze,” he wrote, adding, “too many dogs are permanently chained year-round…This neglectful practice heightens the risk for entanglement, dehydration, starvation, heatstroke, frostbite, trauma, disease and death.”
Many localities too have taken action, and in 2019, we supported the passage of several dozen local ordinances on this issue. Many, including measures that passed in Fayette County, West Virginia, and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, include provisions specifically addressing extreme weather. There are now more than 1,000 localities across the country with ordinances on their books to protect dogs who live outdoors.
A lot of this progress is made possible by dedicated law enforcement officials, like Chief Animal Control Officer Brian Pylar with Eastpointe Police Department, who worked hard to pass an ordinance in Eastepointe, Michigan. The measure, among other requirements, prohibits leaving a dog outside when the temperature is less than 43 degrees. Since the average low in Eastpointe in January is a bitter 21 degrees, the ordinance has no doubt already benefited many animals this year.
If you have companion animals, here are some tips on how to keep your pets safe and comfortable in the cold. If you come across a pet left in the cold, speak up and politely let the owner know you’re concerned. Some people genuinely don’t know the risk that cold weather poses to their pets 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 neglect so the animal receives help before it’s too late. Our work with states and localities to pass stronger laws protecting companion animals will continue full-steam in the coming months, and combined with your vigilance, we can make all the difference for animals left out in the cold.