Cruelty laws punish everything from abandoning a dog to intentionally harming it.
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,
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
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
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.
Confining a Dog in
an Unventilated Car
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
Leaving a Dog Hit
by Your Car
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.
Cropping Ears and Tails
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).
Cruelty in Pet
Shops and Puppy Mills
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 §
"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.
An Exception to
Anti-Cruelty Laws: Self-Defense
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).)