Cruelty to animals is illegal in California, as it is across the country. But California’s laws on the subject are extensive and detailed, covering a wide range of specific behavior, situations, and types of animals—from service dogs and racehorses to circus elephants and exotic species. Below, we’ve summarized the most important state laws that pet owners and animal lovers should know about.
California’s main animal cruelty law (Cal. Penal Code § 597) makes it a crime to mistreat animals in various way, including:
The crime can be either a felony or a misdemeanor (what’s known in criminal law as a “wobbler”). Anyone who’s been convicted of animal cruelty can be charged with a separate crime if they get another pet (Cal. Penal Code § 597.9).
It’s also a misdemeanor in California to abandon pets. One law simply says that it’s illegal to purposefully abandon an animal (Cal. Penal Code § 597s). A more general statute criminalizes leaving animals without proper care and attention in any building, enclosure, lot, street, or other public place (Cal. Penal Code § 597.1). In this case, there’s no requirement that the abandonment or neglect be purposeful. The law spells out detailed requirements for notifications and hearings before an animal is taken into custody (or afterwards, if animal control decided that prompt action was needed). It also explains what owners need to do if they want their pets back. When an owner has been convicted of this crime, the court may bar that person from having or even living with or taking care of any other animal.
Pet owners can be charged with a misdemeanor if they leave their animals unattended in vehicles under conditions that could be expected to result in suffering or death. Those conditions include:
Bystanders, as well as emergency responders (including law enforcement and animal control officers), may break into locked cars if needed to rescue animals in distress. In order to be protected from criminal charges or liability in a civil lawsuit for their actions, bystanders must:
(Cal. Penal Code § 597.7, Cal. Civil Code § 43.100.)
When pet owners leave their animals confined in an enclosed space (other than a moving car), they must provide enough room to exercise. If the pets are left alone on a leash or chain, the owner must make sure that they won’t get tangled up or hurt, and that they can reach shelter, food, and water. Otherwise, the owner can be charged with a misdemeanor. (Cal. Penal Code § 597t.)
A separate law spells out the requirements when dogs are chained up or tethered. Generally, they shouldn't be tethered to a stationary object unless it's necessary for a temporary period while the owner is completing a certain task. Instead, the law requires use of a running line, trolley, or pulley system. Violations of these requirements are either infractions or misdemeanors. (Cal. Health & Safety Code 122335.)
In one of its oldest laws dealing with animal abuse, California makes it a misdemeanor to poison someone else’s animal on purpose. But it’s not a crime to use poison to control predatory animals on your property, as long as you’ve posted conspicuous warning signs. In that case, you also won’t be liable if the animal’s owner sues you. (Cal. Penal Code § 596.)
California’s animal cruelty laws don’t affect:
(Cal. Penal Code § 599c.)
California criminalizes using dogs or other pets as food. It's a misdemeanor in the state to buy, sell, import, or export a live or dead animal that's traditionally kept as a pet if you intend it for food. (Cal. Penal Code § 598b.)
It’s a crime in California to be involved in any kind of animal fighting. In the case of dogfights, you can be charged with a felony for any kind of participation—including raising the dogs, allowing fights on your property, or even just being present at fight preparations or the fight itself, as long as you meant to watch. Involvement in other kinds of animal fighting is a misdemeanor, but it won’t be considered “aiding and abetting” the crime if you were only a spectator. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 597.5, 597b, 597c, 597i, 597j, 597m.)
If you’ve been accused of animal cruelty—or you’re worried about possible charges—it’s a good idea to speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.
An attorney experienced in this area should be able to explain:
Other questions you might have for a lawyer include: