When you own a dog, it's your responsibility not only to take care of the animal, but also to keep it from injuring people or damaging property. In urban and suburban areas, that usually means preventing it from biting someone. But in rural areas, it means keeping your dog from attacking or bothering neighbors' sheep, cows, horses, or other livestock. It's important to know and follow local and state laws, because landowners have significant leeway to kill dogs that threaten their animals. Dog owners can also be held financially responsible for killed or injured livestock.
American common law (i.e., the rules developed over time by courts) has long recognized a person's right to kill dogs in order to protect livestock and other property. In addition, many U.S. states have statutes (often dating from the nineteenth century) allowing farmers, ranchers, and others to kill dogs that are chasing, harassing, or attacking their livestock.
State laws often allow a farmer or rancher to kill a dog before it has actually physically harmed any animals. Many laws specifically mention chasing or "worrying" livestock as behaviors that can justify killing a dog. In this context, "worrying" means that the dog is in some way pursuing or harassing the animal.
These laws are generally focused on preventing harm to livestock, so landowners usually don't have the right to kill dogs just for trespassing. That's true even if a dog comes very near a landowner's animals. For example, North Dakota's Supreme Court ruled that a farmer was not justified in killing a dog just because the dog was running through a herd of cattle on the farmer's property.
The rules vary from state to state when it comes to how much time can pass between a dog attacking livestock and the landowner legally killing the dog.
Texas, for example, allows a landowner to kill a dog only at the time the landowner discovers that the dog has injured or killed livestock. If the dog is killed later, the landowner could be violating Texas' criminal laws against animal cruelty. Years ago, the North Carolina Supreme Court explained the reason for placing this kind of time limit on a landowner's right to kill a dog. That court noted that, "[i]t is not the dog's predatory habits, nor his past transgressions, nor his reputation, however bad, but the doctrine of self-defense, whether of person or property, that gives the right to kill."
This logic—that killing a dog is only justified to protect livestock when they're in immediate danger—is also reflected in state laws that prohibit farmers and ranchers from hunting down dogs once they've left the property. For example, an Illinois court ruled that a sheep farmer wasn't protected under that state's law when he followed a dog back to its owner's home and shot it there, an hour after the dog had killed some of his sheep.
On the other hand, some states permit ranchers and farmers to pursue and kill predatory dogs even after the immediate danger has passed, and even once the dog has left the property. For example, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a farmer could chase and shoot a dog "within a reasonable time" after the dog attacked livestock and fled the property. And the law in Washington State specifically allows a livestock owner to kill a dog found running loose after a previous episode of harassing the livestock, as long as the dog's owner was notified about the earlier incident.
"Livestock" usually means only commercially valuable animals, not pets or wild animals. Some state laws list the specific kinds of animals that may be protected. Others say only that a dog may be killed if it chases or attacks a "domestic animal." That term historically doesn't cover dogs and cats, and some states, like Ohio, specifically exclude those pets from these laws. On the other hand, some states (like Pennsylvania) specifically include dogs and cats in the definition of "domestic animals."
This means that someone who injures or kills a dog that attacked another dog, a cat, or a wild animal in captivity may be found guilty of animal cruelty—and may be liable for the injury to the dog's owner. For instance, a Pennsylvania appellate court upheld a man's conviction for killing a dog that was harassing the man's deer. The state's animal cruelty law included an exception for killing dogs found in the act of destroying domestic animals, but "semiwild" deer in captivity weren't included in the law's definition of a domestic animal.
A rancher or farmer who loses livestock in a dog attack may be able to get compensation either from the dog's owner, or from the government.
When a dog attacks livestock, the livestock owner may sue the dog's owner for the damages—that is, for the value of the dead animals and any other financial losses resulting from the attack. Some states impose larger penalties in order to encourage dog owners to control their animals. In California, for example, the law specifies that the owner of a dog that attacks livestock will have to pay twice as much as the livestock owner's actual financial losses.
Several states also have funds to reimburse people whose livestock are injured or killed by dogs. The animal owner must file a claim with the town or county, following procedures set out in state law. In Illinois, for instance, a livestock owner who reports losses within 24 hours will be compensated if an investigation supports the claim. Compensation isn't immediate. Illinois pays all livestock owners for their losses at the same time every year, largely using money dog owners have paid to register their pets.
The law aims to protect people and property from dangerous animals, while also protecting animals themselves from neglect and abuse. You can learn more about how to deal with a dog-bite incident, the rules in your state covering service dogs and emotional support animals, and how the law addresses animal cruelty.
As we've seen, criminal and civil laws covering livestock protection can be complicated, and vary widely from state to state. If you have specific questions about your situation it may be helpful to speak with a local civil attorney or criminal defense lawyer who has experience handling these kinds of cases. You can also read about what questions to ask to make sure you've found the right lawyer.