Cruelty to animals is against the law everywhere in this country, but it wasn't always so. If you were to pick up a famous old treatise called Chitty's Criminal Law, blow the dust from its leather-bound pages, and look inside, you would search in vain for a crime of "cruelty to animals." It didn't exist in 1819, when Chitty wrote. Most states didn't pass anti-cruelty laws for another century.
Anti-cruelty laws usually punish several different kinds of conduct, ranging from abandoning a dog to neglecting it to intentionally harming it. Some states have only one or two broadly worded statutes that prohibit any kind of "inhumane" or "needlessly cruel" treatment. Others have several statutes: both a catch-all ban on cruel treatment and prohibitions of specific acts—for example, abandoning an animal, leaving it in a car without proper ventilation, or cropping its ears without anesthesia.
A broadly worded statute prohibits many kinds of cruelty, even though it doesn't list them specifically. Locking a dog in a car that overheats could be illegal under a catch-all statute that forbids cruelty to animals, even if there's no specific mention of that conduct in the statute.
Here's the Texas anti-cruelty statute, which combines the broad and the specific to cover nearly every kind of misconduct toward animals (there is a also a more specific and detailed statute outlawing dog fighting):
(a) A person commits an offense [in Texas, a misdemeanor] if he intentionally or knowingly:
(1) tortures or seriously overworks an animal;
(2) fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, care, or shelter for an animal in his custody;
(3) abandons unreasonably an animal in his custody;
(4) transports or confines an animal in a cruel manner;
(5) kills, injures, or administers poison to an animal, other than cattle, horses, sheep, swine, or goats, belonging to another without legal authority or the owner's effective consent;
(6) causes one animal to fight with another; or
(7) uses a live animal as a lure in dog race training or in dog coursing on a racetrack.
Dog-fighting statutes are almost always separate from general anti-cruelty laws, and carry their own stiff penalties.
Failing to provide an animal with the necessities of life is always illegal. A typical statute, for example, makes it a crime not to furnish "food, water, protection from the elements, or other care normal, usual and accepted for an animal's health and well-being." In California, those general rules apply, along with a specific prohibition on leaving an unattended animal tethered for more than three hours a day. (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 122335.) A separate statute requires that confined animals be given an adequate exercise area. (Cal. Penal Code § 597t.) Some cities impose more detailed requirements. San Francisco, for example, has an ordinance requiring doghouses to be clean, dry, raised off the ground, and big enough for the dog to lie comfortably.
Whether or not a person accused of neglecting an animal will be convicted by a judge or jury depends, of course, on the circumstances and the evidence. But to convict someone of a crime, the state must prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt"—a tough standard to meet. For example, a District of Columbia man was arrested for failing to give his dog adequate shelter and protection from the weather. A physician had seen the dog, a German shepherd, tied by a three-foot chain on an open concrete back porch, on a January day when the temperature never got above 28 degrees. The owner was convicted, but an appeal court overturned the conviction because no one "experienced in the care of a dog of this type" had testified that the dog had been made to suffer. After all, said the court, it's common knowledge that some breeds of dogs can stay out in bitter cold with no ill effects. (Jordan v. United States, 269 A.2d 848 (D.C. App. 1970.)
Unless a statute requires that the neglect be malicious, it doesn't matter that someone accused of neglecting animals didn't intend to be cruel. Under most statutes, it is enough that someone knowingly neglected animals. For example, an Ohio farmer who left cattle to die because the market price of cattle dropped was convicted under a neglect statute. (State v. Hafle, 367 N.W.2d 1226 (Ohio App. 1977.) Presumably, he didn't stop feeding them because he wanted them to suffer, but he did intentionally stop feeding them, and as a result, they suffered.
Some neglect statutes don't even require the conduct to be knowing. Under those statutes, if an animal is neglected because of someone's actions, that person is guilty, period. For example, a North Dakota law makes it a crime to deprive an animal of necessary food, water, or shelter. The prosecution is not required to prove that the person acted knowingly or willfully. (State v. Prociv, 417 N.W.2d 840 (N.D. 1988).)
Malicious (intentionally mean) cruelty is punished more severely than other cruelty to animals—often by a prison sentence and a fine that can run tens of thousands of dollars.
Conduct may be malicious even if it isn't particularly harmful. Take, for example, the case of the North Carolina man who grew so annoyed at his neighbor's cat (it threatened bluebirds and walked over his wife's car) that he set a live trap for it. He put red paint in the trap, so that when the cat was caught it was covered with paint from neck to tail. The paint was to identify the cat, he said. He was convicted of animal cruelty and fined $40. (National Law Journal, Aug. 15, 1988.) (The cat was fine after a couple of shampoos.)
You may have seen articles in your local newspaper about a house where animal control authorities have discovered large numbers of severely neglected dogs or cats. The owner, unaccountably, seems oblivious to the appalling filth and disease and remains convinced that he or she is actually a loving caretaker.
For years, this situation has been treated as an animal control problem—but of course, it's really a people problem. Hoarders see themselves as rescuers. They are commonly charged with violating animal cruelty laws, and may spend time in jail. But many of them go right back to their old habits when released unless they receive effective psychological treatment.
For more information on the pathological collecting of animals, see the Tufts University's Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium website.
Anyone who lives in the country, or even on the edge of town, knows that dog owners who have tired of their pets sometimes dump the unfortunate animals on deserted roads. In most places, that's illegal. New York law makes it a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one year's imprisonment, a $1,000 fine, or both. Enforcing these laws, however, is extremely difficult. Just about all witnesses can do is report license plate numbers to police.
Some states and cities specifically forbid confining a dog in a car without adequate ventilation. But even without a specific statute, this could constitute cruelty under a general anti-cruelty law.
The law of several states (Pennsylvania, for one) specifically provides that a driver who hits a dog and knowingly doesn't stop to help it is guilty of a crime. Again, this might be a crime under more general laws as well.
It is still the fashion, among those who breed and show certain kinds of dogs, to cut off part of the ears and tails of puppies. It’s outlawed in the United Kingdom, France, and many other countries, but legal in the United States. Massachusetts is the only state that makes it illegal to exhibit a dog with cropped ears, unless a veterinarian has certified that the cropping was reasonably necessary. (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann ch. 272 § 80B.) A violation can be punished by a fine up to $250. A bill to outlaw ear cropping was introduced in California in 2005, but opposition from purebred dog breeders stopped it in committee.
Some states (Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and New York, for example) at least attempt to make the process less painful for the pups. They require ear-cropping to be done by a veterinarian, while the dog is under anesthesia. Penalties range from stiff in New York (a fine of $1,000, a year in prison, or both) to trivial in Connecticut ($50 for a first offense).
Some states have special anti-cruelty laws for pet shops, where animals are sometimes treated as just more merchandise. California, for example, requires pet shops to provide animals with sanitary conditions, adequate space, heating, ventilation, and humane care. Violators can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, 90 days in jail, or both. (Cal. Penal Code § 597L.)
"Puppy mills," large-scale dog breeding operations that churn out puppies for pet shops across the country, may also be found in violation of local or state anti-cruelty laws or federal laws regulating interstate transport of animals. For example, in 1991 the owners of a Nevada puppy mill were convicted of animal abuse and cruelty (misdemeanors under Nevada law) and sentenced to 150 days in county jail. Neighbors had found 66 dogs, many of them pregnant, huddled in outdoor cages in subzero temperatures; 30 dogs were already dead.
Even if an anti-cruelty law doesn't say so explicitly, it may not apply if the cruelty to the animal was inflicted for what, under the law, is considered a good reason. Many anti-cruelty laws excuse anyone who injures or kills a dog that is attacking a person or livestock.
It's not always clear when this exception applies. Take the Kansas statute: Does it protect a farmer who shoots one of three dogs that have just destroyed his children's Easter baskets, which were in the cab of his pickup truck, parked on his land? The Kansas Supreme Court said yes, ruling that "property" wasn't limited to "farm property." (State v. Jones, 625 P.2d 503 (Kan. 1981).) Earlier, a New York court acquitted a man who shot a dog that frightened his children and attacked his own dog during a family picnic. (People v. Wicker, 357 N.Y.S.2d 5897 (Town Ct. 1974.)
A comparable Oklahoma statute did not, however, protect a man convicted of cruelty for shooting three hunting dogs as they chased a deer. He had left the dogs, wounded but still alive, on someone else's land. The law justified killing a dog that was chasing livestock, but not one chasing wildlife, the court ruled. The defendant "knew that he had hit the dogs and he was willing to let them drag themselves off and suffer and die," said the court. "The trial court felt that this was cruelty to animals, and we can but agree." (Laner v. State, 381 P.2d 905 (Okla. 1963).)