It’s been pretty chilly this week which means we’re being flooded with messages from concerned citizens making formal complaints about animals left outside to endure the freezing temperatures. The thought of Fido curled up in a ball, covered in snow and trembling with cold is enough to make even the iciest of hearts melt, but is it actually too cold outside? What are the laws concerning animals left outside to endure the elements? What can Humane and Animal Control Officers do in these cases?
To be quite honest, Dog Law is an area where I have a vague, at best, understanding so I consulted the ARL’s Humane and Animal Control Officers for help in writing this article. Harry Brown, Alison Rudy, and Jo Parto all weighed in to answer my questions, which I imagine are similar to your questions.
What is the Law?
Let’s start with the technical: PA Law 5511 is titled “Cruelty to Animals.” This is the law that the ARL’s Animal Control Officers enforce. We’re going to look specifically at 5511(c)(1) today:
“A person commits an offense if he wantonly or cruelly illtreats, overloads, beats, otherwise abuses any animal, or neglects any animal as to which he has a duty of care, whether belonging to himself or otherwise, or abandons any animal, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter or veterinary care, or access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal’s body heat and keep it dry.”
We’ll further define a few things to make this law even more clear. These definitions are not provided within the law, but are how our ACO’s interpret the terminology.
To reiterate: any dog left outside needs to have clean and plentiful water, food, shelter and veterinary care. That’s the law and that what we can enforce. I know what you’re thinking, “What?! No way! A negative six degree wind chill is too cold for a dog to be outside, even if it does have a dog house!” Well, maybe so. Maybe not. Here’s what the American Veterinary Medical Association has to say on the matter:
“Just like people, pets’ cold tolerance can vary from pet to pet based on their coat, body fat stores, activity level, and health. Arthritic and elderly pets may have more difficulty walking on snow and ice and may be more prone to slipping and falling. Long-haired or thick-coated dogs tend to be more cold-tolerant, but are still at risk in cold weather. Short-haired pets feel the cold faster because they have less protection, and short-legged pets may become cold faster because their bellies and bodies are more likely to come into contact with snow-covered ground. Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. The same goes for very young and very old pets.”
Those are a lot of factors to consider. I have a tough enough time figuring out if I should put a coat on my pit bull when it’s cold (even though I’m sure pit bulls have survived cold weather without hot pink, plaid, fleece jackets for generations). How the heck am I supposed to know if my neighbors dog is cold or not?! Knowing there’s a law that provides a base for necessary care certainly helps narrow down if what I see in my neighbor’s yard is neglect and abuse, or, just a difference in how we care for our animals.
When & Who Should You Call?
You should be concerned about an animal left out in the cold if the above necessities are not being met. If the dog has clean, fresh water, food, shelter and appears healthy then the owner is within the law. If one or more of these basic needs are not being met, it’s time to call the ARL.
If you notice a dog is out in all kinds of weather DON’T WAIT until the temperatures are extreme. Call when you notice the problem, so we can address it before the animal is in danger.
During normal business hours – call the ARL at 610-373-8830 and ask to speak with an Animal Control Officer. Our ACO’s spend much of their day on the road, but you can always leave a voice mail and your call will be returned.
After hours /weekends – if you feel the situation cannot wait, call your local police department. The law quoted above is PA State Law which the police are equally as able to enforce.
After hours/weekends emergency situation – if you feel the animal is in imminent danger, ie: it will die without immediate intervention, call 610-587-3659 and reach an on-call technician, or call the police.
You should be prepared to provide the following information:
What Happens When I Make a Complaint?
Step 1: All complaints are answered by one of ARL’s three Animal Control Officers. An ACO will drive to the location and conduct a formal investigation.
Step 2: A follow up site visit is conducted.
Can’t You Just Take the Animal???
In most cases, no. Unless an animal is in a life or death situation, it is illegal for us to remove an animal from private property without a search warrant. We can encourage a neglectful owner to surrender the animal in question, but we cannot force them to do so. We also cannot arrest anyone. Darnit.
What about cats and large animals?
Cats: The only law that pertains to cats is this one: Indoor and indoor/outdoor cats must be vaccinated for rabies by a licensed veterinarian.
If you have a feral cat population in your neighborhood and are concerned about it making it safely through the winter, consider building feral cat boxes.
Large Animals: Hobby pets (ie: ones not used for agriculture) like goats, horses and pigs are subject to the same laws as dogs. They must have access to water, food, shelter and veterinary care. If you live in Berks County you can call the ARL for large animal complaints.
Wait. Isn’t there a Dog Warden?
Ahhhh yes, the Dog Warden. Dog Warden enforces Kennel Law. The ARL enforces Animal Cruelty Law. These roles are NOT interchangeable.
Here’s what the Dog Warden does (Enforces Kennel Law):
Here’s what the ARL’s Animal Control Officers can do (Enforces Cruelty Law):
If you are concerned about a dog or large animal being left outside in inclement weather, here’s what you should know: By law, the owner must provide food, water, shelter and veterinary care. If any of these needs are not being met, you should file a complaint. Your information will be kept confidential. This law applies 365 days a year, not just when it’s extremely cold or hot outside.
The Animal Rescue League of Berks County
Enforces Animal Cruelty Law
Edward Bunt, Berks County Dog Warden
Enforces Kennel Law
Enforces Animal Cruetly Law (statewide)