Baby it’s Cold Outside…

i Jan 9th No Comments by


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.

  • Necessary sustenance: Food should be provided as needed (at least once daily) to maintain adequate body weight.
  • Drink: Clean and liquid water should be available at all times. Frozen water and/or snow is not acceptable.
  • Shelter: A four-sided structure with a roof and a floor that can maintain body heat (ie: sized proportionately to the dog) and keep the animal protected from the elements and is clean and sanitary. The structure must be big enough for the animal to stand up and turn around.
  • Veterinary Care: The animal is seen by a licensed veterinarian as needed.

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, 6a0120a80359bf970b0168e62a39d5970c-800wifresh 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:

  • An exact address where the animal in question lives
  • The owner’s name (if known)
  • Your name and phone number. Your information is kept completely confidential and is not released under any circumstances, unless required by law (a rarity).  We do not tell the animal’s owner who placed the call.  We will contact you if we need more information or if we can’t find the property.

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.

  • If the property is found to be within the confines of the law: The investigation ends.
  • If the property is NOT within the confines of the law: The ACO will work with the owner in an attempt to solve the problem. Sometimes ignorance of the law is at play, sometimes financial burdens prevent an owner from providing for their animals.  If we can help solve the problem, we will. A written warning is issued for any violation along with a deadline by which corrections need to be made.

Step 2: A follow up site visit is conducted.

  • If the issues have been resolved: The investigation ends.
  • If the issues still have not been resolved: The ACO will issue a citation.

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.

It can also be difficult to prove ownership of an outdoor cat.  Just because your neighbor is feeding it, doesn’t mean that they10438283_852491294794321_7831976187097257645_n think of themselves as the owner.

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.

  • An example of when to call about large animals: My neighbor’s goat and two ponies live in a field. They don’t have any kind of shelter and their water trough has been frozen for the past three days. (The confines of the law are not being met because the owner has not provided shelter and fresh water for their animals.)
  • An example of when not to call about large animals: My neighbor has four horses and none of them are wearing blankets. (Horse blankets are not required by law and therefore no law is being broken.)

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):

  • Handles complaints/concerns about a kennel. A kennel is defined in PA as a property that houses 26 or more dogs.
  • Enforce the rabies vaccine law anywhere in Berks outside of the city limits
  • Enforce the license law anywhere in Berks outside of the city limits

Here’s what the ARL’s Animal Control Officers can do (Enforces Cruelty Law):

  • Enforce the rabies vaccination law within the Reading city limits
  • Enforce the dog license law within the Reading city limits
  • Enforce the Cruelty to Animals law anywhere in Berks County

A Review…

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)


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