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State Laws on Animal Cruelty and Neglect

Animal cruelty is illegal across the U.S., but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in every state. Several states have strengthened their laws to protect dogs, cats, and other pets from different kinds of mistreatment and neglect. In fact, many laws now require pet owners to meet detailed standards of care for their companion animals. At the same time, other states have remained true to their rural, agricultural traditions with general or vague laws that punish only the most obvious forms of animal abuse. (For details on the laws in several states, see the links at the bottom of this article.)

Cruel Treatment of Animals

In general, the most recognized forms of animal cruelty are illegal: torture, mutilation, cruel beating, overwork, or unnecessary or cruel killing. Some animal cruelty laws apply only to domestic animals, while others (as in Illinois) protect wild animals as well. Many states increase the penalties when the cruelty results in serious injury or death. Some also have separate laws with higher penalties when the victim is a dog or other companion animal.

Poisoning someone else’s pet is typically illegal as well; several states specifically prohibit putting out poison where a domestic animal will probably eat it, unless there are warning signs.

Neglect and Standards of Pet Care

Neglecting an animal is usually a crime as well, but states may define neglect very differently. For example:

  • In states like Florida, criminal animal neglect simply means failing to provide “necessary sustenance or shelter” (Fla. Stats. Ann. § 828.12 (2018)).
  • In Washington, you can be convicted of animal cruelty if you don’t provide needed shelter, sanitation, space, or vet treatment, but only if you acted recklessly, purposefully, or with criminal negligence, and only the animal suffers unjustified pain as a result. You also won’t be convicted if you can prove that you couldn’t take care of your animal because of financial problems that were out of your control. (Wash Rev. Code § 16.52.207 (2018).)
  • In New Jersey and a few other states, pet owners can be convicted of animal cruelty if they don’t meet detailed requirements for providing clean, safe, roomy, ventilated shelter that gives proper protection from the elements (N.J. Stats. Ann. § 4:22.17.5 (2018)).

Most states also outlaw abandoning animals.

Endangering Pets Left in Cars

If a pet dies as a result of being left in a hot or cold car, the owner may be charged with a crime under most general animal cruelty laws. Many states also have separate laws that outlaw leaving dogs or cats alone in vehicles under conditions that could lead to harm, such as excessive heat or cold.

Dogfighting and Cockfighting

Organized dogfighting is a felony in almost every state. In addition to actually putting a dog in the ring, other forms of participation are also typically illegal, including owning or training the dogor betting on a dogfight. Depending on where you live, simply attending a fight could be a felony or misdemeanor. Cockfighting is also illegal in most states.

Other Kinds of Animal Mistreatment

Some local ordinances specifically prohibit having more than a certain number of pets. Most states don’t have separate laws against animal hoarding. However, when people have more animals than they can properly care for, they may be charged under general animal cruelty or neglect laws. (See our article on hoarding pets for more on the consequences of this behavior and what you can do about it.)

A few state laws have restrictions on ear cropping, tail docking, debarking, and other procedures that aren’t medically necessary and/or performed by a vet.

What to Do If You Witness Animal Abuse

You should contact your local humane society whenever you see an animal that’s been abused or suspect that’s happening. Humane society agents are often legally authorized to investigate complaints. They may also be able to take abused animals from the owners’ property. The humane society may be able to help in other ways even when the mistreatment isn’t against the law. You should also file a complaint with the your local police or sheriff.

When to Speak To a Lawyer

If you’ve been accused of animal cruelty, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately. In addition to fines and possible jail time, you could lose your pet and (in some states) your right to have another animal in the future. An attorney should be able to explain any legal defenses you might have, as well as what you have to do to get your pet back if it’s already been seized.

Details on State Laws

Click on the links below to learn more about the laws against animal cruelty and legal standards for pet care in these states:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
From Lawyers  By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor

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