Animal Cruelty Laws

All states outlaw cruelty to animals, as well as neglect and other forms of mistreatment. Criminal penalties range from modest fines to felony prison time.

Animal cruelty is a crime everywhere in the U.S. But state laws on the mistreatment of dogs, cats, and other animals vary a great deal. Some states are tough on this crime, while others still have general—and relatively lax—anti-cruelty statutes. Cities and counties get in the act as well, with ordinances that often outlaw types of abuse not covered by state laws. Overall, however, the trend is toward stronger protection for pets with detailed care standards and harsher criminal penalties for severe or repeated abuse. (For details on the rules in your state, see this 50-state guide to animal cruelty laws.)

Cruelty in All Its Forms

Animal cruelty laws range from general bans on causing unnecessary suffering to exhaustive lists of specific criminal behaviors. Typically, these laws prohibit some or all of the following types of abuse:

  • torturing, maiming, or mutilating an animal
  • injuring, beating, or killing an animal unnecessarily or cruelly
  • leaving pets in cars under dangerous conditions (usually when it’s too hot or cold)
  • abandoning an animal in your care
  • overworking or overloading horses or other work animals
  • transporting or confining animals in a cruel or reckless way, and
  • killing, injuring, or poisoning another person’s animal without legal authority or the owner's consent.

A few states outlaw procedures like devocalization, ear cropping, and tail docking unless they’re medically necessary or done by a vet with anesthesia. New York even prohibits cosmetic piercing and tattoos for pets (N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 353-f).

Animal Neglect

Anyone who owns or is taking care of a pet or other animal may also be charged with a crime for neglecting the creature by not providing adequate food, water, and shelter. Here again, the details vary from state to state. Several laws also require owners to provide veterinary care when it’s needed to prevent suffering or maintain good health. And a few states have enacted very detailed requirements for protection from the weather and tethering dogs outside. For example, New Jersey sets minimum standards for proper shelters, including:

  • enough space to move around, stretch out, and sit up comfortably
  • good ventilation
  • clean conditions
  • good construction with a solid floor
  • access to clean water
  • good light (either natural or following natural cycles), and
  • protection from extreme temperatures, rain, and flooding.

The state also makes it a crime to leave dogs chained or tied up outside for more than 30 minutes in bad weather (including rain, snow, and below-freezing or very hot temperatures), with choke collars or tethers that don’t let the dog move 15 feet, or under other cruel conditions spelled out in the law. (N.J. Stat. §§ 4:22-17.1–4:22-17.5.)

Usually, owners may be found guilty of animal neglect even if they didn’t mean to be cruel, as long as they were criminally negligent or just knew they weren’t providing proper care. In some states, however, it’s not a crime unless the neglect was malicious or led to unnecessary suffering. And occasionally—like in Washington—it’s a defense to criminal charges if owners can prove that they couldn’t properly care for their pets because of financial problems (Wash. Rev. Code § 16.52.207).

Criminal Penalties for Cruelty and Neglect

Historically, people found guilty of animal cruelty rarely went to jail for the crime, and the fines weren’t especially steep. Increasingly, however, states have introduced felony charges for some forms of abuse (often called “aggravated animal cruelty”). The difference between misdemeanor and felony animal cruelty usually hinges on one or more of four factors:

  • Intention. Often, animal cruelty is a misdemeanor if the conduct was negligent or intentional, but it becomes a felony if it’s done maliciously or with “extreme indifference to life” (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16-52.205).
  • Type of abuse. Many states make torture or mutilation a felony, while other types of injury or neglect may only be a misdemeanor.
  • Result. In several states, animal cruelty becomes a felony if the animal dies, is seriously injured, or suffers for a long time.
  • Repetition. Criminal penalties are often increased for repeat offenders.

Some states treat minor forms of animal mistreatment and neglect as infractions (similar to a traffic ticket).

In addition to fines and/or jail time, the penalties for animal cruelty may include prohibitions on owning any other animals for a certain period of time.

Pet Shops and Puppy Mills

Some states have specific anti-cruelty laws that apply to pet stores and “puppy mills,” the dog-breeding operations that supply puppies to pet shops across the country and often have deplorable conditions. Although puppy mills may be violating local, state, or federal laws, enforcement (particularly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is a problem. Several cities—and a few states—have responded by enacting laws that regulate or simply ban all sales of commercially bred animals in pet stores. For example, California prohibits any pet store in the state from selling dogs, cats, or rabbits unless they came from a shelter or rescue group (Cal. Health & Safety Code § 122354.5). People can still buy directly from reputable breeders, who don’t sell their animals to pet stores anyway.

Dogfighting and Cockfighting

Putting two dogs or birds in a ring and having them tear at each other is obviously animal cruelty of an extreme sort. Organized dogfighting is against the law in all states, and it’s almost always a felony. Most states outlaw cockfighting as well, but the penalties may be less severe. Organized animal fighting is also against federal law if the animals were moved across state lines or the enterprise affected interstate commerce in other ways (7 U.S.C. § 2156).

These laws generally apply to the full range of participation in animal fighting, from breeding or training the animals to allowing a fight on your property. In almost all states, spectators at fights are also subject to misdemeanor or felony charges.

Speaking With a Lawyer

If you’re facing criminal charges for animal cruelty or neglect, you should strongly consider consulting with a lawyer as soon as possible. Prosecutors are under increasing pressure to treat animal cruelty and neglect seriously. Depending on where you live and the nature of the charges, you could be looking at steep fines and even imprisonment, as well as losing your right to have pets. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help protect your rights and explore your possible defenses.

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