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Have you seen pets left out in the freezing cold? Here's what to do

by Arin Greenwood / / Source: TODAY

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Late on Monday night, a man left a Pomeranian mixed-breed dog in a crate outside Detroit's only no-kill animal shelter. The dog had frozen to death by the time workers arrived the next morning. Temperatures went as low as minus 5 degrees overnight.

That tragic story is far from unique.

"We’re finding dogs dead in dog houses and strays curled up deceased in fields," Detroit Dog Rescue founder Kristina Millman-Rinaldi told TODAY. "It’s maddening, sad and discouraging."

We know you love animals as much as we do, and want to prevent this suffering. So what can you do to help?

First, know that leaving a pet to suffer in this way can lead to criminal charges. Every state and the District of Columbia have laws on the books making animal neglect and animal cruelty a crime. Some states have more specific laws, prohibiting pets from being left outside in extreme weather.

Authorities announced that the owners of a dog who died in an uninsulated pet house in Ohio will be charged with animal cruelty. A Connecticut woman whose chained dog was "frozen solid" will also be charged.

"If it’s too cold for you, then it is probably too cold for your pets," said Stacy Wolf, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' anti-cruelty group.

Wolf recommends that if you see an animal outdoors and you believe they are in distress, or that the manner in which they are being kept violates the law, you should contact law enforcement.

You may be directed to an animal control agency, a humane society or another organization "depending on the specific situation and applicable law," Wolf said. "It is best to be prepared to provide law enforcement with specific details, including the type of animal involved, as well as exactly when and where you observed the animal."

Calling the police isn't your only recourse. (And sometimes won't lead to the result you want, since the law about what sort of shelter must be provided to an outdoor pet or how long they can be left out will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. More on that in a moment.)

There are also groups — government agencies as well as private organizations — in your area that may be able to help.

Working with Detroit's municipal shelter, for example, Millman-Rinaldi says Detroit Dog Rescue has had "teams out day and night" working to keep the city's pets safe.

"We’re encouraging people to bring pets inside, providing owners with crates to keep dogs with behavior problems confined inside, taking in surrenders, strays and nuisance calls, as well as working with animal control to ease the never-ending burden," she said.

Another Detroit rescuer, Dustin Oliver of Detroit Youth & Dog Rescue, specializes in helping stray or abandoned dogs. He mainly finds out about the dogs needing help through social media, especially Facebook.

If you don't know who in your area is performing a similar service, call your local animal rescue groups and shelters. They can help you navigate the options. Posting on Facebook and other social media can also get help to where it is needed.

Seeing a pet in your area who is being kept outdoors during dangerous weather may tempt you to perform a rescue. Be aware that stealing a pet, even to save their life, may lead to your own arrest.

"Violating the law is never recommended," said the ASPCA's Wolf. "Speaking to neighbors who may leave their pets outside, offering to help — or to take the pets into your own home temporarily — and, if these efforts fail, being diligent in following up and urging law enforcement to take action, all make good sense."

An enthusiastic protest may yield good results in an instance where someone is keeping their pets in conditions that are cruel but not illegal. Lobbying your lawmakers for better animal protection laws, and stronger enforcement of those laws, can save even more animals.

"It is imperative that there are strong laws in place to help ensure that animals do not freeze to death in extreme winter temperatures or die from exposure to extreme heat without adequate shade," said Wolf.

Last winter, a video circulated of a dog named Momma shivering outside in the cold in Washington, D.C. But humane law enforcement officers with D.C.’s Humane Rescue Alliance said that Momma's straw-filled wooden doghouse, and access to food and water, were sufficient under the law.

Committed animal lovers in the nation's capital rallied for change. Lawmakers listened. In February, the D.C. Council passed an emergency law that temporarily increased protections for animals during extreme weather. A permanent version of Momma's Law was unanimously passed in July.

"If citizens are not satisfied with their jurisdiction’s laws relating to humane animal treatment, they should contact their local elected representative and voice their concerns," said Matt Williams, spokesperson for the Humane Rescue Alliance.

Williams then put in a plug for considering outdoor cats, not just dogs. Humane Rescue Alliance has a community cat team and hotline to help folks care for Washington's feral felines. Here's more information from the Humane Society of the United States about how to help protect outdoor cats when the weather is very cold.

The arctic weather is unfortunately going to be freezing much of the United States for a while longer. Unless you have a husky or other cold-weather breed demanding a lot of time in the snow, keep your own pets inside, and help others get to safety, too.

On top of these other ways to help, you can donate to organizations that are working to save pets left in the cold, like Detroit Dog Rescue, Humane Rescue Alliance or your local shelters and rescue groups. Reach out to find out what they most need; it'll likely be financial donations and supplies like straw and dog houses.

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Many of the pets being rescued will need someplace to stay. Fostering or adopting a furry buddy is a crucial way to free up much-needed space in shelters.

Then, of course, make sure those pets are also kept indoors.

Here are more cold weather tips for pets from the ASPCA. They include making sure your pets have warm places to sleep inside the house; keeping antifreeze, which is lethal, away from animals; and washing and drying your pets' feet and bellies after a walk to wipe away irritants like salt and chemicals.

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