Winter is coming … for dogs, too

Issue January/February 2018 By Karen Rabinovici
Young Lawyers Division Section Review

As we all know by now, winter has made its cold entrance just in time for the new year, and it’s time to bundle up ourselves and our dogs, for those of us not opposed to doggie apparel. (I am very much in favor for my miniature poodle mix Earl, who has an assortment, ranging from puffy coats, to plaid sweaters, to one much-hated raincoat.)

In light of the dropping temperatures and increasing layers, an examination of the legal protections extended to man’s best friend in extreme weather, in the form of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140, Section 174E, which, in part, governs the chaining or tethering of dogs to a stationary object, is worthwhile. Although the tethering portion of the law was passed in 2012, the law was updated nearly a year ago to make it much more enforceable. In that year, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), one of the law’s enforcing agencies, reports seeing positive results already.

The law, in essence, prohibits the chaining or tethering of a dog for more than five hours and during the hours between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am (unless the chaining or tethering is for fifteen minutes or less, and the dog must be attended by a person); the use of heavy-weight or other chains not designed for dogs; and the chaining or tethering of a dog under the age of six months for any length of time. In addition, the law prohibits owners from leaving a dog outside when a weather advisory, warning or watch is issued by a local, state or federal authority; or when outside environmental conditions, including, but not limited to, extreme heat, cold, wind, rain, snow or hail pose an adverse risk to the health or safety of the dog. The law also prohibits subjecting a dog to cruel conditions or inhumane tethering at any time, including filthy or dangerous conditions, and taunting, harassing or otherwise harming a tethered or confined dog. 

Violations of the law can result in fines and impoundment of the dog at the owner’s expense pending compliance with the law, or loss of ownership of the dog altogether. Another law, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140 Section 174F, commonly referred to as the “hot car law,” was also passed nearly a year ago. This law prohibits the confinement of any animal in a car “that could reasonably be expected to threaten the health of the animal due to exposure to extreme heat or cold,” and allows law enforcement officers, animal control officers, and firefighters to enter vehicles to assist confined animals, provided such personnel were unable to locate the car’s owner. Although this law is most helpful in the summer, it has its applications in the colder months as well.

In the past year since the revisions to Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140 Section 174E went into effect, the MSPCA has been issuing citations to owners found to be violating the law, and reports seeing a quick pattern of improvement. Almost all owners were found to have complied with the law’s requirements after just one visit from MSPCA law enforcement. This is in stark comparison to animal cruelty complaints issued under the criminal law, which often take lengthy amounts of time to resolve in the court system, at the expense of the animal in question. 

The MSPCA also reports that for cases in which the conditions or severity are not extreme enough to warrant criminal charges, the issuance of monetary fines has worked as a strong incentive to owners to make the needed changes, improving the lives of dogs. In one example of circumstances warranting a citation, an owner was cited for keeping a dog in an unsanitary area that included drinking water in a dirty bucket that contained algae, and debris that included crumbling platforms and other items in disrepair that could have injured the dog. “We are thankful when the legislature recognizes gaps in the existing statutes and works to ensure that animals in our state our protected,” states Kara Holmquist, Director of Advocacy at the MSPCA and chair of the MBA’s Animal Law Practice Group.

So, it is important to remember that as the cold season makes its chilly impact on people, it also affects the dogs exposed to our beloved and lengthy New England winters, as reflected in several Massachusetts laws. Of course, all dogs deserve and would prefer to snuggle up cozily with their humans on the couch in front of the fireplace. We can all weather the weather better that way.