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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Sgt. Randy Thornton, with Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control, loads a bale of straw into the back of his van. Officials stress that all animal care officers have straw with them to provide warmth to animals from the bitter cold.

Life in doghouse needn’t be pain

Insulated shelter, water, straw are key – but skip the blanket

– When the weather outside is frightful, Fido’s doghouse should at least be humane.

Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control officials say that far too often, the shelter that people provide for their outside dogs is less than adequate, which is not only illegal but is also slow, cruel torture for the animal.

“By law, it needs to be an appropriate shelter, specifically designed for that animal,” said Peggy Bender, Animal Care & Control’s community relations and education specialist. “Whether it’s a dog, a horse or whatever, it needs to be designed for them.”

Dogs need doghouses that insulate them from the cold ground and also keep their paws out of the mud. While people appreciate square footage, doghouses can’t be too big, because their body heat has to warm the space. A doghouse that’s too large is a doghouse that’s too cold, Bender said.

The length of a doghouse should be the length of the animal plus 12 inches, and it should only be 3 inches taller than the pet.

Doghouses don’t have to have a flap on the door, but it does help to keep out the cold. A partition inside that can block the wind from the door also makes a huge difference in your dog’s comfort.

Your comfort matters, too: It’s a lot easier to clean a doghouse that has a hinged or removable roof, and cleaning is important to ensure that dirt and debris that can hold moisture doesn’t build up.

That’s why blankets – despite your instincts – are bad ideas: Blankets gather moisture, then freeze when it gets cold. Instead of a warm fuzzy to cuddle up to, you’ve given Max a hairy ice cube.

What should you give him? Straw – which can be had for $5 a bale at most any hardware store or for free at Animal Care & Control – or wood chips, Bender said. Did we mention straw is free?

“If someone has a dog that spends time outside, they can come here and we’ll give them straw,” Bender said.

And they would much rather give you straw than a citation for animal cruelty.

When frigid winds are blowing, a little insulation can be a very big deal. Position your doghouse in a sunny location, facing away from the coldest winds.

Animal Care & Control enforcement supervisor Randy Thornton said simply putting the doghouse near a privacy fence will create a natural windbreak. If that’s not possible, stock bales of straw around it.

If all this sounds too complicated, you can buy quality doghouses at most pet stores.

“Fifty dollars will buy you a pretty nice doghouse,” Thornton said.

What about keeping Fluffy in the garage? That might be fine if the garage is heated, officials said – but if not, then she’ll need a doghouse in which to lay down her head.

“A dog’s body heat is not enough to heat that garage,” Bender said. “You must have a doghouse in there.”

And, again, doghouses must be appropriate shelter: “Trampolines are not shelter,” Thornton said. “A camper shell from the back of your truck is not shelter. A metal trash can on its side is not a doghouse. A crate with a tarp wrapped around it is not a doghouse. Porches and decks are not shelter.”

Animals must also have access to potable water – that means water, not ice or snow, and it must be clean. Pet stores and hardware stores sell heated water dishes. And dogs will also burn more calories keeping warm, so extra food during the cold months is good, too.

Even if you’ve taken all of those steps, you still need to ensure that Lassie is not being harmed by the weather: Ice can cut the pads on their paws, dirty fur will hold moisture and freeze, putting ice against their skin, and frostbite can take the tips of their ears, their toes, tails or even their testicles.

“There are times, when the windchills are subzero – even if they’re acclimated to the cold, bring them in for the night,” Bender said. “If your dog survived the winter outside last year, that is no guarantee he’s of health to survive it this year.”

Age matters, too.

“Eventually, they will reach an age when they’re not going to be able to stay outside,” she said. “It’s flat-out misery for a lot of these animals. They may endure it, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Officials said that if you see an animal not being properly cared for, call Animal Care & Control any time day or night – it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“All of our officers are educators first, before they start writing tickets,” Bender said.

Animal Care & Control can be reached during business hours at 427-1244 or 449-3000 other times.

Bender said that anyone needing help or assistance caring for an animal should call, even for things like switching a dog from being outdoors to indoors.

“We can talk to them,” Bender said. “We’re here to help.”