At Sharon Messersmith’s dog park, about 2 acres of fenced yard behind her Alsace Township home, apartment dwellers and other customers with home-bound pooches unleash their pets to frolic outdoors during the winter, and, each Christmastime, they pose for photos with Santa Claus, Messersmith’s husband in costume.
But if the weather gets too cold, Messersmith closes her private pay-to-frolic park, the Canine Valley Training Facility, because dogs are susceptible to frostbite despite their fur.
It’s a policy that reflects society’s changing attitudes toward dogs, from outdoor guards in previous generations to furry loved ones, Messersmith said, an opinion that she, a dog owner, shares.
“We don’t look at a dog as a possession anymore,” she said. “Dogs are now family members, and they don’t belong outside.”So she supports a recent Pennsylvania law that prohibits dog owners from keeping their pets outdoors for long on cold winter days.
The law prohibits owners from tethering their dogs outdoors for more than 30 minutes when the temperature falls below 32 degrees.
Violators could face up to 90 days in jail, a $300 fine, or both, for a summary offense filed by a dog warden, animal cruelty officer or police.
If the offense places the dog at risk of injury, violators could face up to one year in jail or a $2,000 fine, or both, for a second- or third-degree misdemeanor.
“The biggest change,” according to a Humane Pennsylvania analysis of the bill, “is that for the first time ever in Pennsylvania, it will be possible to file felony-level penalties for first-time cruelty offenses outside of animal fighting or killing an endangered species.”
The prohibitions, which took effect in August, are part of a more comprehensive animal cruelty law that places requirements on collars and leashes for dogs tethered outdoors, as well as conditions in pens or other outdoor areas where they are kept.
Previously, state law required dog owners to provide shelter, such as a dog house, that preserved their pet’s body temperature, but the new law “is pretty cut and dried – it’s a temperature, it’s a time element,” said Karl Minor, president and CEO of Humane Pennsylvania.
Typically, dog wardens, police and animal welfare officers don’t file charges immediately when they find a dog tethered outdoors, preferring to talk to the owner first, Minor said.”But having the weight of a strong law behind you makes that conversation go better,” he said.
Public opinion on the treatment of dogs has changed over the years, said Nicole Wilson, an animal cruelty officer and director of humane law enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA. Tethering a pet dog outside was acceptable, and more common, when Wilson began her career as an enforcement officer in 1998.”It wasn’t even part of the conversation, really,” Wilson said. “It was common practice to just open your door and let your dog out. There is a very much different mindset nowadays.”
To prove the new, stricter law is needed, she tells the story about one dog, tethered outdoors in a Philadelphia neighborhood: It was a Rottweiler mix, tied out in the cold for so long that it was suffering from seizures when she and another animal cruelty officer arrived.
Police gave them an escort to the SPCA’s shelter and veterinary facility, but the dog died on the way, Wilson said.”I’m sure most officers have had these instances,” she said.
Some cities and states have gone even further to protect dogs.
City Council in Reading overwhelmingly approved a ban on tethering dogs in March. In October, California became the first state to ban the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores to reduce “puppy mills”; Gov. Jerry Brown signed it on Oct. 13, and the ban takes effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
Taking your dog out into the cold? Messersmith recommends putting one of those doggie coats and sweaters you see at pet stores on your pooch to help keep it warm.She also recommends paw wax, found at pet stores, for the pads at the bottom of their paws, to protect them from sharp, frozen grass and cement.
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