Houston heat killed 5 dogs in 1 week. Cruelty teams are swamped.


In the middle of a blazing hot day at a rundown northwest Houston apartment complex, Natalie Spellman whistles and listens.

A few whiny yelps and muffled huffs respond. Spellman, an animal cruelty investigator with the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, peers up at a second-floor balcony and sees two brindled-colored dogs packed together in a tiny wire cage. A concerned neighbor called the SPCA’s tipline, worried the dogs’ lives may be at risk due to the near-100 degree temperatures.

Two dogs in crates on the back porch of an apartment on Hammerly Road on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Houston, as Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty investigators Octavio Gonzalez and Natalie Spellman check their welfare.

Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

“We have been out here, what 10 minutes? And I am drowning right now,” Spellman says, streaks of sweat running down her face.

Houston’s ongoing heat wave poses a severe risk to animals who are stuck outdoors. Heat-related distress calls typically tick up in the summer for animal cruelty teams like Spellman’s, and this year’s exceptionally hot June has had an impact.

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“It’s definitely increased,” Octavio Gonzalez, Houston SPCA animal cruelty investigator said of the heat distress calls. “Now that we are hitting the upper 90s, those calls are definitely coming in.”

The SPCA’s 10-member animal cruelty investigation team responds to calls in 11 Houston-area counties and currently each member handles up to 150 cases. Over the last seven days, the organization has found four dogs that died from heat exposure and has responded to 26 heat-related cases. Gonzalez said he and his colleagues have removed at least two dogs due to non-compliance from owners who left their animals out in the heat.

Officials with Harris County Constable Precinct 5, which heads the Harris County Animal Cruelty Task Force, said they’ve received a “significant” increase in heat-related calls, including calls about animals left in hot cars and without any water or shelter.

The precinct has responded to 140 calls within the last week; Typically there would be 30 to 50 calls during that time frame. At least one dog died from the heat during that time, officials said. No charges have been filed but the investigation is continuing.

The two dogs stuck in the wire kennel appear to be out of direct sunlight and are not in immediate distress, so there’s little that can be done. Spellman and Gonzalez issue a notice for the owner to contact them within a certain time period and plan to check back later that day to see if the issues they’ve spotted have been resolved. Most of their time is spent educating owners on how to properly care for their animals, and to make sure they are in compliance with the law.

Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty investigator Octavio Gonzalez tapes a “Notice to Call” notification on the door as he and fellow conferee Natalie Spellman were checking the welfare of two dogs left in crates on the back porch of an apartment on Hammerly Road on Wednesday, June 15 , 2022 in Houston.

Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty investigator Octavio Gonzalez tapes a “Notice to Call” notification on the door as he and fellow conferee Natalie Spellman were checking the welfare of two dogs left in crates on the back porch of an apartment on Hammerly Road on Wednesday, June 15 , 2022 in Houston.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty contempt Natalie Spellman taped a “Notice to Call” notification on the gate of a Northside home as she was checking the welfare of a dog reported to have been tied up outside on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Houston.

Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty contempt Natalie Spellman taped a “Notice to Call” notification on the gate of a Northside home as she was checking the welfare of a dog reported to have been tied up outside on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Houston.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer


Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty investigator Octavio Gonzalez tapes a “Notice to Call” notification on the door as he and fellow conferee Natalie Spellman were checking the welfare of two dogs left in crates on the back porch of an apartment on Hammerly Road on Wednesday, June 15 , 2022 in Houston. (Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

It’s a delicate dance for investigators, though. They don’t want to separate animals from their owners if it’s not needed, and they need to follow protocol – but they also don’t want to risk an animal’s life. The heat can kill quickly.

“It could take 10 minutes,” Spellman said. “The last time you saw your dog — healthy happy, wagging its tail — and you could go outside and it could be in a dire situation. It just happens that fast.”

The reasons why owners leave their animals out during severe weather vary, Gonzales said. Some say their animals tear up items in their house, or that their kids are allergic.

“It’s certain things like that that definitely get frustrating, especially when we see the animal paying for these choices that are being made,” Spellman said. “We do our best to educate them and let them know that there is a high chance that they could be too late.”

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The hot temperatures can have severe effects on dogs, including giving them “horrific” sunburns, Shelby Bobosky, executive director for the Texas Humane Legislative Network said. Dogs that are tethered can get dried mud and dirt in their paws, which hardens in the heat and can become excruciatingly painful. Dogs that are tethered on a concrete surface also suffers from serious burns on their paws.

“There is a myriad of issues with incredibly hot weather that can truly injure a dog that lives outside,” Bobosky said.

Across town in North Houston off Hirsch Road, Spellman finds a skinny Belgian Malinois tethered to a small, red-colored dog house outside an auto shop lot that is peppered with beat-up cars, U-Hauls and debris. He’s definitely a guard dog, she says, inching closer as she coos him. He’s surrounded by feces and a nearby aluminum water bowl has been tipped over.

A Belgian Malinois chained outside with an empty water bowl found by Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty convict Natalie Spellman, who responded to a call about this dog, on a property on Hirsch Road on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Houston.

A Belgian Malinois chained outside with an empty water bowl found by Houston SPCA Animal Cruelty convict Natalie Spellman, who responded to a call about this dog, on a property on Hirsch Road on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Houston.

Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The owners are in direct violation of Texas law: the dog is tethered with a heavy chain, has no food or water and the tether is way too short.

Texas’ Safe Outdoor Dogs Act was passed in an effort to save dogs in conditions just like this one from dying at the end of heavy chain tethers in extreme weather conditions. The bill, which went into effect in January of this year, makes it illegal for pet owners to tether their dogs with heavy chains, weights or improperly fitted collars and requires animals have adequate shelter that keeps them from standing in their own feces, out of direct heat or freezing temperatures, and access to water. It also requires that the length of the tether be at least 10 feet long or six times the length of the dog from its nose to its tail, whichever is longer.

Texas’ Safe Outdoor Dogs Act was passed in an effort to save dogs in conditions just like this one – from dying at the end of heavy chain tethers in extreme weather conditions. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle Staff Photographer) Video: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle Staff Photographer

“The reason we fought so hard for the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act to become a law was because the majority of the calls were for dogs outside, languishing in the 100 degree heat,” Bobosky said. “For many years, that was the number one complaint.”

Bobosky said the organization, which works to pass anti-cruelty legislation, has actually seen an overall decrease in calls about heat distress in dogs since the law went into effect, but notes cities like Houston still have work to get done.

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“When you go to communities like Houston, where there probably at one point were thousands of dogs on chains, that’s going to take some time to,” Bobosky said. “And it’s only been in effect for six months. But we have definitely seen changes in other communities where the Safe Outdoor Dogs Act is working.”

Spellman waits to find the owner of the Belgian Malinois and calls for law enforcement backup. The owner eventually agrees to come into compliance, which is all the investigators can ask for. The owner of the balcony dogs also came into compliance later that same day and agreed to move the dogs indoors and out of the heat.

“These extreme weather conditions that Texas will seriously continue to have for the next couple of months need to be taken,” Bobosky said. “We urge every Texan to bring their dogs inside during these extreme heat waves.”

rebecca.hennes@chron.com

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