BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Overnight on New Year's Eve, Birmingham Police say they received 17 calls about dogs being left outside in frigid temperatures. That is an unusually high number of calls for the agency.
Responding officers can order animal owners to correct any situations where there is inadequate access to shelter, food or water. They could also write misdemeanor citations and refer the case to an animal cruelty investigator.
Animal welfare professionals say the best rule of thumb for pet owners is if it's too cold for you, it is too cold for your pets too.
"The common-sense definition of shelter is protection from the elements," says Mindy Gilbert, the Alabama Director for the Humane Society of the United States. "If the elements of weather are the heat, the cold, the wind and the water, if it's not protecting from those elements, then it's not shelter."
Gilbert wants state lawmakers to pass a bill proposed by Rep. Mac Butler that specifically defines what constitutes as shelter for pet owners, taking some of the guess work out of the 17-year-old statute on animal cruelty. Animal welfare professionals say the best rule of thumb for pet owners is if it's too cold for you, it is too cold for your pets too.
"If your extremities get cold in 20 to 25 minutes outside, their tails and ears will too," says Dr. Nicole Metcalf, an associate veterinarian at Mercy Animal Hospital in Gardendale. "As their core body temperature drops, animals can go into shock the same way humans do."
Dr. Metcalf is particularly concerned about animals with thin fur coats, such as pit bull mixes, that are tethered outside. She says "outside pets" should be allowed inside your home, garage or barn during extreme temperature periods or when the ground is wet. At the very least, animals need to be enclosed on three sides and be able to get up off the ground on something dry like a palette or hay. Be mindful too that animals burn a lot of calories trying to stay warm so ensure there is access to plenty of food and water that is not frozen. Animals with medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease may have a particularly difficult time regulating their body temperatures.
Animals that are cold will naturally seek shelter and might be found under a porch or curled up into a ball. Some may also self-mutilate, chewing on limbs like their paws. Dr. Metcalf recommends warming those pets up gradually to prevent any massive swings in body temperature.
"Certainly there are people who are not allowed to have an animal inside," says Gilbert. "Get a crate, stuff it full of things like hay or cedar chips. Get some bedding or a hot water bottle. You would do it for yourself, certainly you would do it for your kids, you should do it for your pets too."
If you cannot provide adequate shelter, food and water for a pet, you should surrender that pet to your local animal control or humane society. Doing so not only helps ensure animals are living quality lives, but also frees you of animal cruelty prosecution.