What to Do If You See a Dog Left Outside in Cold Weather


Cold weather can be dangerous for dogs, especially for those who view them as “outdoor” animals.  Instead of living inside with their family, these dogs are often chained up outside in the backyard. Some have the shelter of a dog house; some don’t even have that.

And with the temperatures falling below zero in many places during the winter months (Norris Camp, Minn. hit negative 48 in late January), dogs left outside could possibly freeze to death. But it doesn’t have to get that low for a dog left outside to succumb to hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is a condition that develops with an extended exposure to cold weather, though how long that may take depends on the health of the dog, the breed, the temperature and whether or not it’s wet in the environment. It develops when the dog’s body temperature drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with 99 to 90 degrees considered mild hypothermia and severe hypothermia defined as anything below 82 degrees. Symptoms range from shivering, muscle stiffness, and shallow, slow breathing to difficulty breathing and coma. If a dog with hypothermia isn’t treated at the outset, the dog may die.

Frostbite can occur simultaneously. When the skin gets extremely cold (usually occurs when the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but can happen in warmer weather), the body will protect itself, diverting blood from the skin to vital organs. For dogs, paws, ears and tails are the most vulnerable to frostbite.

While most breeds don’t do well living outside in the cold all year round, some breeds have less tolerance to cold temperatures than others. Dogs with short hair, small dogs, senior ones and those with a weakened immune system generally get cold faster than breeds built for cold weather like huskies.

Related: The Must-Have Products to Keep Your Dog Safe and Warm During the Winter Season

So what do you do if you see a dog left outside in the cold?

Well, it depends. In some states, it’s illegal to leave a pet outside in cold weather. For instance, Pennsylvania recently passed Libre’s Law, which states that a dog cannot be left leashed for longer than 30 minutes in cold weather temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. New Jersey passed a state law that makes it illegal to leave pets without shelter outdoors when temperatures fall below freezing. Illinois passed the Humane Care for Animals Act making it illegal to expose an animal to prolonged periods of time in extreme cold conditions.

The Humane Society of the United States recommends that you contact a local law enforcement agency if you find a dog left outside in cold weather who you believe is in danger. The organization notes that there are laws in place in every state to prevent the suffering of animals. At the very least, animal neglect is a misdemeanor crime in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

To make a complaint:

  • Document what you see. Note the date, time, exact location and the type of animal(s) involved. Video and photograph the animal, the location, the surrounding area and anything else relevant. Write down as many details as you can.
  • Contact law enforcement or the local animal control. Take comprehensive notes, writing down the name of person you talk to, the date, and what they said. Follow up in a few days.

Call the Humane Society for advice. Call 202-452-1100 or 866-720-2676, or email:

Talk to the dog’s owner. If you don’t want to go in guns blazing, try talking to the owner. The most effective way is to start a conversation without making a judgement. There are people who have always had dogs who lived outside. If you explain what hypothermia is, you just may convince them to bring their dog inside.

Leave a note or information. If you don’t feel comfortable knocking on the door, leave some information about hypothermia and cold weather tips for dogs. If your veterinarian has a pamphlet about cold weather and pets, you can leave that in the mailbox. Or print out information online. Follow up in a day or two and see if the situation has changed.

Offer to build a dog house. The owner may have provided shelter, but it just doesn’t cut it. Offer to help them build a doghouse that will keep their dog warm. There’s plenty of information online with plans to build one.

Follow up. Don’t assume anything. Follow up in a few hours if it’s very cold outside or in a day or two if the weather allows it. If nothing has been done, call law enforcement or an agency like the local Humane Society.

Most importantly, if you see something say something. A dog’s life may depend on it.

Related: Natural Ways to Help Heal Your Dog’s Cracked Paws and Nose During the Winter


By Jillian Blume

Jillian Blume is a New York City–based writer whose feature articles have appeared in magazines, newspapers, and websites including the New York Observer, Marie Claire, Self, City Realty, the ASPCA,, Best Friends Animal Society, The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, The Pet Gazette, and many others.

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