It’s a Felony to Leave Your Dog Out in the Cold in These 8 States · The Wildest

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It’s a Felony to Leave Your Dog Out in the Cold in These 8 States

It’s super dangerous—and very illegal.

by Sio Hornbuckle
January 22, 2024
Portrait of fluffy red leashed dog outdoors in winter on snow.
HDesert / iStock

In much of the country, we’ve reached the part of winter that’s a little less let’s-go-ice-skating and a little more let’s-never-leave-our-blanket-fort-again. The long-awaited snowfall looks nice on Instagram stories, but the plummeting temps don’t actually feel so great — for us, or our pups. In these types of conditions, dogs and humans alike are at risk of bodily harm if they stay outside too long.

And, unlike humans, dogs don’t always get to choose whether they’re out in the storm or cuddled up by the fireplace. But it’s actually illegal for dogs to be left outside in the cold unattended for long periods of time — and in more than eight states, it can even be considered a felony. 

Why is it dangerous to leave dogs in the cold? 

Like humans, dogs are at risk of frostbite if they’re exposed to frigid weather — and it doesn’t even have to be freezing out for frostbite to set in. “Frostbite can develop at temperatures above freezing if there is a severe wind chill or exposure to water,” veterinarian Dr. Bartley Harrison recently wrote for The Wildest. “Without a steady blood supply, cells begin to die off. Water in the exposed tissues can also freeze, causing the cells to rupture.” This results in extreme pain, swelling, blisters, and dead skin or tissue.

Another serious risk is hypothermia. Hypothermia progresses in stages, and “each stage of hypothermia results in worsening the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, maintain brain and heart function, and preserve blood flow,” Dr. Harrison wrote. “Dogs experiencing cold stress will become progressively lethargic, weak, and mentally dull.” Because it slows a pup’s heart rate and breathing, hypothermia can lead to serious results including cardiac failure, coma, and death.

There are legal consequences of leaving dogs out in the cold.

Because of the risk of physical injury, leaving a dog unattended in the cold is considered animal neglect. Neglect is a form of animal cruelty defined by the Animal Legal Defense Fund as “the failure to provide basic care required for an animal to thrive.” Abandonment, hoarding, and failure to provide shelter are all examples of animal neglect. The consequence for these actions vary across the country and according to each specific case. In all 50 states, however, animal neglect is considered at least a misdemeanor — but some states carry more serious charges

In Massachusetts, any animal neglect case can be charged as a felony, with a potential prison sentence of up to seven years. Neglect can also be charged as a felony in any case in Oklahoma, where it carries a sentence of up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine. 

In California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., animal neglect can be considered a felony if the situation results in the death of an animal. Animal neglect is a misdemeanor in Georgia, but it can carry a felony charge if malice is proven. 

In 2017, Pennsylvania passed Libre’s Law, which specifically made it a misdemeanor to tether a dog outside for more than 30 minutes in temperatures above 90 degrees or below 32 degrees; if a dog dies or is seriously injured, the case may be considered a felony. Many other states have anti-tethering laws, including California, Illinois, and Texas.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and each state has its own set of laws regarding animal cruelty. For example, in some states, such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky, second convictions of animal cruelty can be considered felonies. In others, a felony may be applied in cases of extremely torturous conditions or when malice and intent can be proven. To find out your state’s laws regarding animal treatment, you can click around on the University of Michigan’s Animal Legal and Historic Center map.

Remember: If you’re cold, they’re cold.

Regardless of the legal ramifications, leaving an animal outside in the cold is extremely dangerous and cruel. It’s a meme, but it’s true: If you’re cold, they’re cold — bring them inside. If you see an animal abandoned out in low temps, the Humane Society recommends that you “take note of the date, time, exact location, and the type of animal(s) involved and write down as many details as possible about the situation.”

You can then contact your local animal control agency to file a report. Depending on your location, there may be other outreach services available; for example, in New York City, you can call 311 to report animal neglect.

Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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