When temperatures start to plummet, Animal Humane Society’s humane investigations hotline receives a significant increase in calls. Concerned animal lovers suspect that animals left outside in extreme weather conditions might be in danger — and for good reason. Cold weather can be deadly for pets.
Leaving a pet outside in extreme temperatures without food and shelter can be a criminal offense.
“A common theme among conscientious pet owners is that if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for your pet,” says Keith Streff, AHS humane agent. “But that’s just a rule of thumb, it’s not the law.”
So how do you know if an animal is actually in danger due to cold weather?
Consider the contributing variables
If you think a pet is in danger due to cold weather, it’s important to consider the variables. With dogs, size, age, and breed are important factors. Certain canine breeds — like Huskies, Akitas, Chow Chows, and Alaskan Malamutes — actually appreciate the colder weather and can withstand longer periods of time outside. Because cats are more capable of seeking shelter on their own, they’re less likely to suffer the effects of freezing temperatures.
Access to shelter is another important thing to consider before registering a complaint. If a dog chooses to be outside, even with access to adequate shelter (like a doghouse), it’s unlikely that it’s suffering. As in any other scenario, pay close attention to body language. Is the dog lifting its paws? Whining or barking? Acting stiff or not willing to move about freely?
“It really just depends on what you’re seeing and what the dog is doing,” says Ashley Pudas, AHS humane agent.
The same can be said of a dog in a car. It’s illegal to keep a dog in a car only when the environment jeopardizes the dog’s health and safety. In winter months, cars can actually be an acceptable shelter. Pudas says if the dog is lively or barking while in a car, it’s likely not in danger at that moment. If you can, keep any eye on the dog — the situation could change as time goes on.
Reporting animal cruelty
If you suspect an animal is being neglected or is in danger due to cold weather, AHS humane agents encourage you to first contact local law enforcement (animal control, police department, or sheriff’s office). Depending on where you’re located, they may be able to respond more quickly. Plus, says Streff, they may have prior complaints on record and already be familiar with the owner and pet involved.
If local law enforcement believes a more thorough investigation is necessary, they will contact the AHS Humane Investigations department.
Before reaching out to local law enforcement, document as many details as you can about the situation (capturing date, time, location, and type of animal(s) involved). Photographs or video can also be helpful.
In the state of Minnesota and across the US, penalties for animal abuse and neglect range from a petty misdemeanor to felony, depending on the severity of harm to the animal.
Have pets of your own? Read more about keeping them safe in cold weather.