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In PA, no law against leaving your pet outside in frigid weather

With the arrival of the recent cold snap, the web is full of tips on how to take of your pet in cold weather: Keep dogs and cats inside, be sure your thin-coated dog has a jacket on for walks, wipe off ice and snow when they come in, wash paws if they come in contact with ice melting crystals.

Here's the language in the state animal cruelty code: A person commits cruelty if the animal does not have access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal's body heat and keep it dry.

The problem with the language is how broad and subjective it is. Before she moved to Virginia, Tamira Thayne, founder of the anti-chaining group Dogs Deserve Better, went many rounds with law enforcement in Pennsylvania in too many cases to count involving dogs tied outside with a box that is too large, uninsulated or even lacks four sides.

Most of the time the owners would win, even filing trespassing charges against Thayne as their dogs stood shivering in the cold with little bedding and frozen food and water bowls (also illegal but hard to enforce). The image above is one such case from 2010.

On my own travels my heart goes out for the pit bull mix on the chain near my house where the local cruelty officer has paid many a visit. The owner responds by stuffing some old straw in the plastic airline crate when ordered and that's all the end of the story. The dog's owners had an elderly hound dog that I drove past for many years. Who knows how long it was on a chain before it expired or was shot. It was only a matter of weeks before they had a new dog at the end of the chain.

The sad reality of dog breeding kennels is that only commercial kennels are subject to strict temperature requirements during periods of extreme heat and cold. Small kennel owners need only provide some semblance of housing and some semblance of bedding. Dogs in Lancaster County puppy mills and elsewhere are still consigned today to rabbit hutches with only a wood box for shelter.

The Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team (PASART)  issued a helpful list of tips for keeping your dog or cat comfortable (they also urged farmers to keep livestock inside and reminded them to be sure water troughs are not frozen).

-Never leave puppies, smaller dogs, older dogs or cats outdoors when the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

-If your dog or cat stays outside much of the time in the winter, be certain that they have a proper shelter raised several inches off the ground with a flap over the entry. Keep a fresh blanket, cedar shavings or straw to keep the pet warm. The shelter should be large enough that your pet can sit and stand, but small enough so the pet's body heat will be retained in the house.

-Use a plastic water bowl to ensure your pet's tongue does not get stuck to cold metal, and change the water often to keep it from freezing.

-Be sure to keep older or arthritic pets inside. Escort older dogs outside for toileting and use a leash if the yard has ice or snow. Older dogs can easily fall and seriously injure themselves.

-Be alert for signs of frostbite and injury. Dogs' ears, paws and tails are especially susceptible, and if you suspect frostbite, contact your veterinarian. If your dog plays on ice or hard, frozen dirt, check his paws for cuts and always wipe his feet after a walk in the snow to remove ice pellets and salt deposits.

-Use only pet-safe ice melt.

-Always be alert for signs of hypothermia such as shivering, lethargy, low heart rate and unresponsiveness.

-Never leave your dog inside a parked car. During the winter it can act as an icebox and trap cold air inside.

The feral cat advocacy group Alley Cat Allies has a helpful list of tips -and guides for building insulated cat houses - for keep feral cat colonies comfortable in the winter.

Also, they urge people to rap on their car hoods if cats are around to make sure they did not take shelter by your warm engine.