What Constitutes Animal Cruelty?
Acts of violence or neglect perpetrated against animals are considered
ANIMAL CRUELTY. Examples include overt abuse, dog fighting and rooster
fighting, and companion animals being neglected or denied basic
necessities of care, such as food, water or shelter. Animal welfare
organizations across the country work daily to educate people about how to
care for their companion animals and how they can prevent animal cruelty.
Many people who witness, or hear about cruelty, are not aware that legal
action can be taken to help stop the problem. Companion animals are
primarily covered by state animal cruelty laws, which vary from state to
state and county to county. These laws may be confusing to people who want
to help animals in distress but are not clear on what constitutes animal
Generally, animal cruelty can be divided into two categories: neglect
and intentional cruelty:
NEGLECT is the failure to provide an animal with the
most basic of requirements of food, water, shelter and veterinary care.
Neglect is often the result of simple ignorance on the animal owner's part
and is usually handled by requiring the owner to correct the situation.
If the problem is not corrected, the animal may be removed from the
neglectful person by law enforcement authorities. In some cases, the owner
will simply turn the animal over to authorities because they no longer
want the responsibility.
INTENTIONAL CRUELTY is often more shocking and usually an
indicator of a serious human behavior problem. Intentional cruelty is when
an individual purposely inflicts physical harm or injury on an animal.
The ASPCA and other organizations with cruelty investigation authority
have arrested many individuals, who have deliberately maimed, tortured or
even killed animals. Although many individuals are arrested for
intentional cruelty, people who commit even the most heinous crimes
against animals are often not prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In
states where animal cruelty is considered a misdemeanor, individuals who
commit intentional cruelty crimes against animals can receive, at most,
one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Often, perpetrators receive no more
than probation. Someone who is violent towards animals may be violent
towards family members or other people. Animal cruelty laws vary from
state to state.
Many states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that make
intentional cruelty a felony charge, while 12 states treat neglectful
cruelty and intentional cruelty as a misdemeanor. Many animal cruelty laws
specifically exclude accepted animal husbandry practices involving farm
animals, animals used in research, and lawful hunting and trapping of
Many states now require the person convicted of cruelty to undergo
psychological evaluation and counseling, in addition to paying a fine or
An increasing number of states are instituting cross training and
reporting programs involving social service workers who are likely to see
cases of animal abuse during the course of their work in domestic violence
and child abuse. This development arises from the research validating the
"link" between animal abuse and human violence.
A number of states
provide civil and criminal immunity to veterinarians who report suspected
cases of animal abuse to law enforcement authorities since they are likely
to be the first ones to come in contact with an abused animal.
Enforcement of animal cruelty laws can be carried out by local police or
by humane or municipal agencies that are granted power from the state or
The stories you may have heard about animal cruelty are
heart-breaking-neighborhood kids setting a dog on fire, organized rooster
fighting, a roadside zoo at which animals are beaten into submission and
kept in horrible conditions. There are instances of neglect, too, in which
an owner is not providing proper shelter, food or veterinary care for a
Many people who witness cruelty, neglect or animal abuse are not aware
that legal action may be taken; some may be frightened to register a
formal complaint for fear that the abuser will find out. But if it weren't
for concerned citizens, humane organizations and police departments
wouldn't know about many instances of animal cruelty. You can make a
If you witness, or hear about, animal cruelty, abuse or neglect taking
place, you can help stop the suffering by reporting it to your local SPCA,
humane society or law enforcement agency.
Acts of animal cruelty can also be reported to The ASPCA's legal
department so that local officials can be advised about how to prosecute
the case; District Attorneys, too, need to understand the seriousness of
animal abuse. Without more vigorous prosecution, abusers may continue to
feel impervious to the law. Our Legal Department also intervenes in animal
cruelty cases throughout the country as a friend of the court in order to
advocate for the punishment of abusers to the fullest extent permitted by
law. The department can be reached at (212) 876-7700 X4451 or by e-mail at
Talk to local teachers, veterinarians, and the clergy-the more who are
aware of the animal abuse plaguing our society, the less chance for
abusers to hide. It is becoming increasingly clear that people who abuse
animals are also linked to domestic violence, spousal and child abuse. And
make sure schools in your town include humane education in their lesson
plans; children who learn to love and respect animals will grow up to be
You can also help those who are working to stop animal cruelty by
supporting your local animal rescue organization or shelter-you can donate
money and supplies, or, better yet, your time. Volunteer at a local humane
society, foster a shelter animal or adopt a companion animal. Promoting
and practicing responsible pet ownership is another way to stop many
abuses from starting.