It's bad enough to watch your pet suffer or die. But it can be particularly upsetting when you think someone intentionally or negligently (carelessly) hurt your pet. The person who harmed your companion animal may face civil and criminal liability.
Here's what you need to know about liability for injuries to pets:
Under criminal animal cruelty laws, anyone who kills, injures, abuses, mutilates, or neglects a pet may face criminal charges. Animal cruelty laws vary from state to state. Some states, like Illinois, are tough on this type of crime. Other states, like Mississippi, are less protective of animals.
Criminal penalties for animal cruelty may include jail, prison, probation, and fines. Courts may also order the convicted person to pay victim restitution to compensate the animal's owner for economic losses.
For details on the laws in your state, see this 50-state guide to animal cruelty laws.
Anyone who intentionally injures a dog or other animal is typically financially responsible to the animal's owner. Here are some examples of intentional injuries that may entitle the pet's owner to compensation:
Pet owners may sue people who deliberately hurt or killed their animals under different legal theories, including conversion, trespass to chattel (an old-school legal term for destroying or interfering with someone else's property), or intentional infliction of emotional distress in some states.
People generally have the right to kill or injure dogs when it's necessary to protect themselves, other people, or property. But people aren't entitled to hurt someone else's dog just because the animal threatened them or their animals in the past. Learn more about when killing a dog is legally justified.
You may also be able to sue someone who injured or killed your companion animal through negligence (the legal term for carelessness). To win a negligence lawsuit, you must prove that the person you're suing (the "defendant") had a duty to be reasonably careful, didn't meet that duty, and caused harm to you as the injured animal's owner. The harm will typically be in the form of vet bills that you had to pay to treat your injured pet or the cost to replace a killed or maimed animal. Most states don't award pet owners compensation for the emotional harm caused by losing a companion animal or seeing the animal suffer in negligence cases.
Most pet-related negligence lawsuits come up when people—like pet sitters, dog walkers, shelter employees, or groomers—are responsible for taking care of someone else's pet. Special legal standards apply in cases of veterinary malpractice. Drivers may also face negligence lawsuits when they hit and injure animals.
Here are some examples of negligence:
Most Americans value their pets like members of the family, but the law values them more like a car or other type of personal property. Rules vary, but most states limit a pet owner's compensation to the economic value of the pet and out-of-pocket expenses. For example, a pet owner may be entitled to the fair market value or the replacement value of the pet plus reimbursement for veterinary bills.
A few states recognize that beloved pets are more than pieces of property for pet owners. An older dog with no pedigree may not have much market value, but it's likely priceless to its owner. For example, Tennessee pet owners may recover non-economic damages (up to $5,000 as of 2022) as compensation for the loss of "companionship, love and affection" when their pets have been killed intentionally or through negligence. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403).
Damage awards in pet-related civil lawsuits are meant to compensate pet owners for economic (and sometimes emotional) harm. In some states, courts may also award punitive or exemplary damages, designed to punish defendants for their egregious behavior.
Learn more about compensation for your pet's loss or injury.
In the past, it's been hard to get fair compensation for a pet's loss or injury. But the law in this area is changing. So if your companion animal has been hurt or killed, talk to a personal injury lawyer. If you can, find an attorney who specializes in animal law.
A lawyer can explain local laws apply to your situation, the legal options that may be available to you, and the deadlines for filing claims in your state. You might also consider filing a claim in small claims court, which provides a relatively simple way to resolve disputes under a certain dollar limit without a lawyer.