What to Do If You Suspect Mistreatment of a Dog

Local humane societies can help--and there's usually a bright future even for abused dogs.

Almost all of us have seen neglected animals—hungry, mistreated, left in filthy conditions without enough food or water. Here are some ideas on when and how to help.

Where to Complain

If you know or have good reason to suspect that an animal is being mistreated—abused, neglected, used in dog fighting, or in any other way cared for improperly—start by talking to someone at the local humane society. Authorities in many states rely on humane societies, which are private nonprofit organizations, to monitor treatment of animals and to investigate complaints, especially in commercial operations such as pet shops or horse-drawn cabs. Humane society employees work with law enforcement personnel or investigate cruelty complaints on their own and then notify authorities.

Humane society staffers will have a good sense of what kinds of conduct the local police or prosecutor's office will act on. These community standards, more than the language of anti-cruelty laws, ultimately determine who is convicted or even who is prosecuted in the first place. And even if the behavior isn't against the law, the humane society may be able to correct it, eliminating the need for recourse to the criminal justice system.

If a humane society isn't available or helpful, talk to:

  • the owner, if you think explaining your concern might have a good effect
  • animal control authorities
  • city police or the county sheriff
  • the local prosecutor (usually called the district attorney or state's attorney)
  • the closest office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if your concern involves conditions in a puppy mill or pet shop
  • your representatives in the state legislature or Congress, if the problem should be addressed by legislation (for example, the problem of puppy mills)
  • the FBI, if dogs are being taken across state lines for fighting.

If you make a written complaint to law enforcement officials, send a copy to a local or national humane society and keep a copy yourself.

What Happens to Rescued Animals

Neglected or mistreated animals are usually seized by animal control authorities when their owner is charged with cruelty. If the animals don't need to be taken immediately, however, the owner of the animals has a constitutional right to notice and a hearing before the animals can be taken away.

If the animals are taken without first notifying the owner, the owner is entitled to a hearing, usually before a judge, as soon as possible. (See, for example, Carrera v. Bertaini, 63 Cal. App. 3d 721, 134 Cal. Rptr. 14 (1976); Cal. Penal Code § 597.1 (procedure for hearing after animal is seized).)  In most places, the owner is responsible for reimbursing the government for the costs of impoundment, and can't get the animals back until the bill is paid.

(For more on what can happen to impounded animals, see "Impounding and Destroying Dogs.")

A problem with anti-cruelty laws is that in most of them, there's nothing to keep someone who's convicted of cruelty from going right out and getting another dog. Massachusetts, however, doesn't let someone convicted of cruelty to animals get a dog license for two years. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 140, § 137D.)  Usually, all a judge can do is forbid a convicted criminal from having a dog while on probation.

Rehabilitation of Abused Animals

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that many abused dogs--especially dogs that had been trained for fighting--were beyond help. They would never be able to lead anything like a normal life, and the kindest thing was to humanely put them down. That belief was stood on its head by the fascinating story of the Michael Vick dogs. More than 50 pit bulls were taken from the NFL star's Bad Newz kennels, where some dogs were kept in kennels and most were just chained outdoors in the woods.

The completely unexpected happy end to the story is that many of the dogs are now happy family pets After  a stint in shelters (where they were largely ignored because everyone thought they were dangerous and would soon be euthanized), evaluations by experts, and a lot of rehabilitation, they are doing just fine. Most of the dogs were extremely fearful, not aggressive. Some are too traumatized to leave shelters, but most were placed with families. Some have earned their Canine Good Citizen certificates (a badge of good temperament and manners, issued by the American Kennel Club) are others are now certified therapy dogs.  

Learn more about rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogs.

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