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  • Writer's pictureGina Scrofano

What To Do If You See A Pet Left Out In The Cold

Sometimes we see pets left outside in the cold and we just don't know what to do. It's important to trust your instincts. If you believe there's something wrong with what you see, you're most likely right. And when it comes to the bitter cold, every minute counts.

Don't Be Afraid To Speak Out - Here's How:

1. If It's An 'Emergency' - Call 911

We must always act quickly, as every minute an animal is left in the cold increases their risk of harm. If you believe the animal is in immediate danger of injury or death, call 911 (see 'Symptoms of Hypothermia' below). Use your best judgement - when in doubt, call 911. Otherwise, follow the steps below.

2. Take Notes

  • Date

  • Time

  • Exact Location

  • The type of animal(s) involved and how many

  • Is there food?

  • Is there water? Is the water frozen?

  • Type of tether, if any: Rope, chain, etc.

  • Weather conditions: Rain, snow, hail, wind, sun, temperature

  • The condition of the animal(s): Any shivering (note that shivering will cease as hypothermia progresses), pale skin or gums, stiff limbs, injuries, excessive whining, slowed or shallow breathing, difficulty walking, or lethargy?

  • Type of shelter, if any: Doghouse, shed, barn, etc.

  • The size and condition of the shelter: Is it falling apart? What is it made of? Does it have a roof? Is it wet inside? Is there anything on the floor, such as straw? Is it big enough for the animal to lie down, stand up, and turn around in?

3. Document The Weather

Take a screenshot of the current weather conditions with your phone from an app, such as your phone's stock/basic weather app, or The Weather Channel app. Try to get a shot that shows the temperature, weather, and date and/or time together. Learning how to take a screenshot of your weather app in advance, will allow you to do this in seconds. If you forget to at the moment, you can find records of previous weather reports here.

4. Take Pictures or Video

Take pictures/video of the animal, outdoor 'shelter,' and/or surrounding area. If the animal is in a vehicle, include the license plate. Please do not trespass. Try to take pictures from public parking lots or the street. Do not post the images on social media, which will likely waste time and cause hysteria.

5. Contact Local Police or Animal Control

Contact the police department, sheriff's office, or animal control located in the town where you witnessed the animal(s). Provide them with all your notes and evidence. Write down who you spoke with and when. If the situation has not been rectified within a reasonable length of time, follow-up with a friendly phone call to inquire about the status. More and more localities are acknowledging the severity of this issue and it is possible that when you contact local police the dispatcher will advise you to hang up and call 911.

6. If it's too cold for you - It's too cold for your pet

Hypothermia and Frostbite Facts

Despite their fur, the bitter cold can be just as life-threatening for animals as it is for us. Even pets that some claim are "built for the cold," such as Siberian huskies, Maine Coons, and other longhair breeds, can suffer from frostbite, hypothermia, and death. In fact, animals can suffer hypothermia when wet from cold rain or water even in the spring and summer. The same is true for windchill regardless of the temperature. As with humans, the body temperature of animals is very delicate, and even just one degree below their norm is considered hypothermia, causing immediate symptoms.

When pets are cold for too long, their bodies began restricting warm blood flow; prioritizing the most vital organs for survival (heart, liver, kidneys, lungs), and constricting blood vessels to the extremities. With lack of blood flow to the face, ears, tail, foot pads and genitalia (in male dogs), those areas are particularly susceptible to frostbite, which leads to the death of the tissue.

When it comes to animals in the cold, each passing minute can mean the difference between safety and suffering, and life and death.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

  • Shivering (shivering is the body's natural way of trying to heat itself when cold, but shivering will cease as hypothermia progresses)

  • Bright red skin (followed by pale skin as hypothermia progresses)

  • Pale skin or gums

  • Stiff limbs

  • Difficulty walking (stumbling, lack of coordination)

  • Blackened skin (death of tissue due to frostbite)

  • Lethargy

  • Slowed or shallow breathing

  • Reduced heart rate

  • Collapsing

  • If not adequately treated in time, hypothermia can lead to coma, heart failure, and even death.

7. Animals Left In Vehicles

In low temperatures, vehicles are like refrigerators; they retain the cold. A car parked on a cold day means a cold car within a few minutes of turning off the heat. Even if left running, heaters sometimes malfunction and start blowing cold air. If you witness an animal in a vehicle on a cold day and you believe they are in immediate danger (see symptoms of hypothermia above), call 911. Otherwise, follow the steps above (2-5) on taking notes and pictures, and contacting the police. You may also quickly report it to the manager inside the facility's parking lot, using the vehicle color, make, model, or license plate, so that they may attempt to locate the owner. Promptly return to the vehicle. If the owner arrives, kindly share your concern. Do not escalate the situation with anger. If your attempts are unsuccessful, contact the police (if you haven't already done so). For more information see 'Know The Law' below.

5 Ways to Protect Pets This Winter - HSUS Tips

8. Know The Law

NH Cold Car Law (RSA 644:8-aa): It is unlawful 'to confine an animal in a motor vehicle (or other enclosed space) in which the temperature is either so high or so low as to cause serious harm to the animal.' Law enforcement may remove animals from vehicles if they are 'endangered by extreme temperatures.' Good Samaritan laws, allowing residents to rescue animals from such situations, were introduced to the NH State Legislature in 2018 (HB 1394) and 2020 (HB 1542). Unfortunately, the House did not pass either of them. Even if an animal is experiencing the significant hypothermia symptoms listed above and you believe they may die before law enforcement can arrive, you still may be held liable for breaking into the vehicle, including the cost of any damages. Always contact law enforcement and make a reasonable attempt to locate the owner before taking such matters into your own hands.

Not in NH? Click here for the hot/cold car laws in your state.

NH Canine Shelter Law (RSA 644:8, II-a): The law requires that 'shelters' 'provide protection from the direct sunlight and adequate air circulation when that sunlight is likely to cause heat exhaustion.' Shelter from the weather must allow the dog to remain clean and dry. The shelter must also be 'structurally sound,' and allow the 'dog the ability to stand up, turn around and lie down, and be of a proportionate size as to allow the natural body heat of the dog to be retained.'

NH Equine Shelter Law (RSA 435:14): This law mandates that horses have access to a barn, or are provided with 'roofed shelter' with at least 3 sides, from November 1 through April 15.' Horses in those shelters, 'must not be kept tied but shall be able to move around freely.'

Helping Neighborhood Cats In The Winter - ASPCA Tips

9. Share An Investigation Guide With Local Police

You may contact your local police department or animal control officer and provide them with the investigation guide below, which will assist them when facing animal cruelty cases involving hypothermia-related illness or death.

Protecting Animals Now and In The Future

Unfortunately, current NH law does not require that owners allow their cats or dogs inside their homes, and does not limit the amount of time a dog is left tethered or outside. Pets can lawfully be left out in the cold 24/7, despite a weather advisory.

However, please do not allow that to deter you from following the above steps and contacting law enforcement with your concerns. Not only does reporting such incidents potentially bring warmth to a freezing pet, but also contributes towards changing the inefficient laws that allowed them to suffer outdoors in the first place.

Straight Twist, Logo, Animal Welfare


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