It’s against the law in every U.S. state to treat animals cruelly. State laws usually prohibit several different kinds of mistreatment, from torturing or maiming an animal to not providing proper food and shelter. Traditionally, these statutes were fairly general, and the penalties amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. But in response to repeated news stories about abused dogs—and the accompanying public outcry—lawmakers have been stiffening the penalties and targeting more specific behaviors. For instance, several states now include detailed requirements when dogs are confined or left tethered outside, and serious or repeated abuse often leads to felony charges. Some states have separate laws that apply only to dogs (or dogs and cats). Also, many cities and counties have local ordinances that are stricter than state laws.
Although animal cruelty laws vary considerably from state to state, these statutes typically outlaw the most recognized forms of abuse—torture or mutilation—as well as neglect and abandonment.
Typically, animal cruelty laws prohibit torture, mutilation, overworking, and killing any animal unnecessarily or cruelly. Some states require that the abuse be intentional or malicious, while others increase the penalties when the abuse is reckless or malicious. Many statutes also explicitly outlaw poisoning an animal deliberately or placing poison where someone else’s animal is likely to eat it.
Almost all states also make it illegal to neglect an animal. In many states, neglect simply means not providing necessary food, water, and shelter. Several states go further by requiring that owners also give their animals needed veterinary care, exercise, sanitary conditions, and protection from the weather. But some laws add conditions that could make it hard to convict someone of animal neglect. In Washington State, for example, pet owners may face misdemeanor charges if they don’t give their animals needed shelter, sanitation, space, rest, or medical attention—but only if the animals suffered unnecessary or unjustified pain as a result, and only if the owners acted intentionally, recklessly, or with criminal negligence. And Washingtonians can defend themselves against neglect charges by proving that their own financial distress prevented them from caring properly for their pets. (Wash Rev. Code § 16.52.207.)
More and more states have added details on conditions that amount to criminal neglect when dogs are left outside, whether chained up or in fenced yards. For instance, Pennsylvania law says that dogs can’t be tethered outdoors for than 30 minutes in freezing or very hot weather. The tether must be a certain type and length, attached to a certain kind of collar. The dog must be tethered in clean conditions with access to water and shade. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5536.) New Jersey also prohibits leaving animals outside in bad weather for more than a half hour, and its law spells out detailed requirements for shelters, including the amount and quality of the space, light, cleanliness, construction, ventilation, and protection from the elements (N.J. Stats. Ann. §§ 4:22-17-4:22-17.5 (2018)).
In most states, it’s illegal to abandon an animal, whether by dumping it in a public place or leaving it anywhere without providing for its needs. However, it’s very difficult to enforce laws against animal abandonment, since the owners are unlikely to leave a license or other identification on the abandoned pet. Just about all witnesses can do is report license plate numbers to police.
Many state laws specifically forbid leaving a dog or cat unattended in a vehicle under harmful conditions—which usually means that it’s too hot or cold inside the car. A handful of states, including California and Florida, have “Good Samaritan” laws that allow bystanders to break into locked cars to rescue animals in distress, but only if it’s necessary and only after they’ve taken steps like contacting law enforcement (see Cal. Penal Code § 597.7, Fla. Stat. § 768.139.)
Even where animal cruelty laws don’t explicitly address leaving animals in cars, it could be illegal under a catch-all provision that outlaws cruel treatment or any abuse that leads to unnecessary suffering. In reality, however, authorities are unlikely to press charges unless a pet died as a result.
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 many other countries but legal in most of the United States. Massachusetts makes it a crime to show a dog with cropped ears unless a veterinarian has certified that it was necessary (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 272, § 80B). Several states require that ear-cropping or tail docking be done by a vet, with anesthesia. Other states outlaw other procedures that aren’t medically necessary—like cutting a dog’s vocal cords or, in New York, giving your pet cosmetic tattoos or piercings (see N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 353-f).
Almost all states make it a felony to participate in organized dogfighting. In addition to actually putting a dog in the ring, it’s also generally illegal to own or train fighting dogs, to allow a fight on your property, to bet on a fight, or even to be present where you know that a dogfight is happening. (In many states, however, attendance at fights is only a misdemeanor.) Most states also criminalize involvement in cockfighting.
Federal law also punishes participation in animal fighting, if the animal was moved across state lines to fight (7 U.S.C. § 2156).
When people collect far more pets than they can care for properly, the animals usually end up suffering from malnutrition, crowded and unsanitary conditions, and untreated health problems. Although some cities and counties have local ordinances that forbid animal hoarding, states generally don’t treat it as a separate crime. Hoarders may face misdemeanor (or occasionally felony) charges under general animal cruelty or neglect statutes, but they usually continue with their compulsive behavior even after they’ve had to pay fines. Most mental health experts agree that animal hoarding is a psychological disorder. A few states like Illinois and California authorize courts to order mental health evaluations and treatment in appropriate cases (see 510 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 70/3 and Cal. Penal Code § 597(h)).
Many animal cruelty laws excuse anyone who injures or kills a dog that was attacking a person or another animal. In fact, owners are usually financially liable when their dogs injure livestock.
Animal cruelty laws also typically include exceptions for legal activities such as:
Even if an animal cruelty law doesn't say so explicitly, it may not apply if the mistreatment was inflicted for what the law considers a good reason.
If you see or suspect that someone is mistreating animals, contact the local humane society. In many states, humane society agents have the authority to investigate complaints and even seize animals that are being abused. If not, staffers can usually tell you if local law enforcement is likely to act on the problem. Even if the owner’s behavior isn’t illegal, the humane society may be able to do something to help. You can also file complaints with the city police or county sheriff.
If you’re the one being accused of animal cruelty, it would be a good idea to contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney experienced in this area should be able to explain how state and local laws apply to your situation, how you might recover your pet if authorities have already taken it, and any defenses you might have to criminal charges.