Keeping animals warm, safe in Fairfax County

Office Jen Milburn of the Fairfax County Police Department\'s Animal Services Division conducts animal welfare checks. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

FAIRFAX, Va. – With the big chill came an increase in calls to animal control departments around the D.C. area from people worried about animals being left out doors.

“A majority of them were all welfare calls based on concern over just the animals being outside in that cold temperature,” said Office Jen Milburn of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Animal Services Division.

Dozens of calls came in, mostly about dogs left out in the cold. While some are legitimate and some aren’t, an officer always follows up.

“Any animal should not be left out when it’s below zero,” said Milburn.

In one case on Tuesday, an animal services officer found a dog outside that wasn’t adequately housed — there wasn’t a covered door and the house wasn’t elevated so it wasn’t touching the ground.

“The dog was actually shivering.”

If they can, Millburn says they like to leave animals with their owners, but in severe cases of neglect they seize the animals from their owner.

“I don’t know what goes through people’s minds when they stick a dog outside for 5, 8, 10, 12 hours or overnight where the animal may have access to no shelter, or shelter that not appropriate or adequate for the temperatures.”

In most cases though, officers will talk with the owners and arm them with the information they need to keep the animal safe but depending on the situation, owners can be charged.

“Instead of taking it upon themselves to learn how to better improve their pet’s environment, unfortunately we get involved and then we have to educate them the hard way.”

She says owners need to remember that animals have the same health concerns as humans. Animals with arthritis, short legs or shorter hair will have a more difficult time handling cold temperatures.

Dogs should be brought in when the temperatures go below freezing, even if it means bringing them into a garage or shed. Any shelter needs to be off the ground and have proper cover so the animal is protected from the elements.

Milburn says there are also other cases that are not as easy to solve. On Monday, before the “Polar Vertex” she came across a homeless man and his dog.

“He said that he was basically just trying to get enough money to go somewhere so — get a room for the night — so he can take his dog with him.” He refused to go to a shelter, because they don’t allow pets.

Another call they’ll get is for feral animals, who don’t have anyone to look out for them. In some instances people will set-up makeshift homes for cats but Milburn says people must take care.

“Anytime you are providing custodial care for feral or stray cats then you technically can be looked at as the owner of those cats.”

Her best advice is to call animal services to help with the any feral animals.

In all, Fairfax County has 17 calls for animal welfare checks. In the District of Columbia 40 calls came in for animals being left outside without shelter.

Scott Giacoppo of the Washington Humane Society said “all but one or two resulted in the animal being brought inside.”

In one case, Giacoppo said one dog left outside was seized because the owners were not home.

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