This time of year, it’s hard to be an animal lover. From stray cats darting across icy roads to dogs being left outdoors for long periods of time, animal advocates have a lot to be frustrated about when the snow starts to fall.

Like people, animals – especially those that typically spend their nights sheltered from outdoor conditions – are accustomed to the warmth that comes from a roof over their heads. The common misconception that their fur protects them from big threats like frostbite and hypothermia is just that: a misconception.

I personally see cases of animal neglect more often in rural areas. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in more urban areas, but it’s so much more frequent in these areas for a few reasons. There’s an old-school mentality that dogs and cats can survive out in the cold because they have fur, that’s how it’s always been on the farm, that’s just how animals live… you name it. But outside in dangerous weather? It’s a very common form of animal cruelty; the most investigated by police and animal control agencies than any other form of animal abuse, according to the Humane Society of the United States. I most commonly see dogs left outside regardless of the weather – a simple decision that can prove exceptionally fatal on days when the temperature begins to fall.

Minnesota state law requires you to at least provide a warm, dry shelter and plenty of water and food if you can’t bring your pet indoors during the winter months. Just check out MN Statute 343.30 regarding dog houses. So why do so many animals have to fight to survive the winter when November rolls around?

In my mind, two things: a lack of supervision and education.

According to the MN Statute, the shelter provided to an animal during the winter months needs to be moisture- and wind-proof and be built with solid and durable materials. It must also include a windbreak at the entrance. The floor of the structure needs to be at least 2 inches off the ground, with bedding materials. I recommend using straw as bedding material because of its hollow construction. While hay and blankets are nice in theory, straw retains heat better than either, and is not susceptible to freezing from condensation from the animal’s breath. Hay also breaks down much faster and develops mold more quickly.

It’s true that every animal is different and, depending on the size and breed of the animal, they each need individualized care in the winter. A common myth I’ve seen is that all large-breed dogs can easily handle the cold because of their size, but the fur on a heavily-coated animal like a husky or malamute is much different than that of an american pit-bull terrier, boxer, pointer, etc. Cats, too, are even smaller than dogs, so it’s best to keep them indoors for the entirety of the winter unless they are already accustomed to being barn cats. Even then, it’s important that they have a place to escape the harsh weather with plenty of food and water, as their bodies will work harder and use more energy to regulate their body temperature in the cold.

If you’re unsure of how to tell if an animal needs to come indoors, there are numerous signs that show they’ve been in the cold for too long. The most frequently seen warning signs are the animal curling up into a ball to retain body warmth or holding their feet off the ground in discomfort. Plus, chances are if it’s too cold for a person to go outside, it’s likely animals don’t enjoy it either. If animals must be outdoors, they need to be monitored closely to ensure they do not develop conditions like hypothermia or frostbite.

So, what do you do if you see animals purposely left outside on an extremely cold day? The best thing to do is call law enforcement, so they can be made aware of the issue. Be sure to reference MN Statute 343.30 regarding dog houses if they need supplemental information. From there, law enforcement should contact the owner and discuss things with them. They’ll also be able to issue a warning should the conditions warrant one.

But if the issue is recurring, the next call you place should be to the Animal Humane Society and/or Minnesota Federated Humane Societies, where further action can be taken and law enforcement can issue a citation.

If you see an animal being neglected and left out in the cold, please: speak out. Their owner may no necessarily have sinister intentions and might not realize how much the animal is suffering at their hands, but it’s important to educate them before it’s too late. That phone call may very well save an animal’s life!

Adapted from “Winter not just tough on people” published by Shane Carlson in the Princeton Union-Times on December 12, 2018.