State laws historically did not impose significant penalties for mistreating animals, but this is starting to change. Publicity regarding the abuse of dogs and other animals has led to more comprehensive laws and harsher penalties. Animal cruelty or neglect sometimes can even support a felony charge. Specific laws may apply to certain types of animals, especially dogs or cats. In addition to state laws, local governments in cities or counties may regulate this area.
Torturing or mutilating an animal is prohibited in most states, as is killing an animal in an unnecessarily cruel manner, such as poisoning it. The prosecution may need to show that the defendant acted with intent or malice, or sometimes intent or malice is an aggravating factor. Many states ban procedures that are not medically necessary, such as pet tattoos or piercings.
However, some cosmetic alterations to dogs may be permitted. People who breed certain types of dogs for public shows may crop their ears or dock their tails. In some states, an owner of this type of dog can show it only if they get a certificate from a vet to establish that the procedure was necessary.
Dogfighting is a serious crime that can be charged as a felony. Even if you do not personally run a dogfighting organization or put a dog in the ring, you can be prosecuted for owning or training fighting dogs, hosting a fight, or even attending or betting on a fight. Similarly, cockfighting is a crime in many states. You can be prosecuted under federal law as well if you participate in animal fighting that involves transporting an animal across state lines.
Definitions of animal neglect depend on the state. It may amount to a failure to provide food, water, and shelter to an animal, or it may involve a failure to provide veterinary care and exercise. Additional rules may apply to dogs who are tethered outside or kept in fenced yards. While the laws are often broadly written, convictions can be limited to narrow situations. The prosecution may need to prove that the animal suffered severe and unnecessary pain and that the owner acted with intent or recklessness. You may be able to defeat an animal neglect charge if your poverty prevented you from properly caring for the animal.
Animal abandonment is a crime that is difficult to prosecute, unless a witness notices the license plate number or other identification of the person abandoning the animal. Otherwise, law enforcement may not find out who was responsible. Leaving a pet in a car that is excessively hot or cold also is a crime that is rarely prosecuted, unless the pet died. In some states, other people are authorized to break into the car to rescue the animal if it is necessary and if they have contacted law enforcement.
Animal neglect may occur when a person hoards pets, which means that the pets likely will lack proper attention. This may be prohibited at the city or county level, but states do not specifically prohibit animal hoarding. More general laws on cruelty or neglect may cover the behavior. People who hoard animals usually are suffering from a mental disorder, so the situation can be hard to permanently resolve. Sometimes a court can order a hoarder to undergo mental health treatment.
Defenses to Animal Cruelty or Neglect
If an animal attacks a person or another animal, the person or the owner of the animal under attack has the right to injure or kill the attacking animal. The owner of a farm animal that is injured by a dog has a right to collect compensation from the owner of the dog.
People who are engaged in otherwise legal hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, or scientific research may be able to defeat an animal cruelty or neglect charge on this basis. Conducting research that involves animals may require getting specific approval or meeting federal or state standards. In general, prosecutors will be reluctant to bring charges if there was a valid justification for the behavior.