Animal Cruelty Laws by State: Is it a Crime to Abuse an Animal?

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham

Awareness of animal cruelty and harsher sentences for those convicted has become increasingly important in the last few years. Many law schools now offer specific courses on the subject, all 50 states have animal cruelty felony provisions (most of felony provisions are for malicious, willful, or aggravated animal cruelty (language varies from state to state) when only four had such penalties in 1986, and the FBI just this year started collecting data on arrests for animal cruelty, which was previously lumped into the “other crimes” category. The thing that we seem to not have an answer for, however, is the strong correlation between animal abuse and other crimes such as bullying, assault and murder.

What is Animal Cruelty?

Contrary to the first thought that would jump into many people’s heads, abuse is not just a violent act towards an animal; it is also about neglect and failing to provide for its general well-being. This covers an array of circumstances, including leaving an animal chained up outside during inclement weather or for long periods of time, hoarding, or failing to provide veterinary services as needed.

Dogs are the animals that suffer the most abuse. From fighting to the general neglect just mentioned, approximately 64 percent of reported cruelty involves dogs. They are the most common household pet, and unfortunately, household pets are the animals that suffer the most abuse. In correlation to other incidents of domestic violence, 71 percent of pet-owning women who were victims say that their attacker also targeted their pet.

is it always a crime to abuse an animal?

While animal abuse is never O.K., it it isn’t always a crime and -even when it is – not all animals are protected (especially in laboratory testing).  There is a lot of variance in animal abuse laws from state to state, particularly in terms of which animals are covered. For example, some states do not include fish or other sea creatures on their protected animals list, while others still, such as Nebraska, do not include livestock.  

Animal Cruelty Laws by State



*Notes regarding laws in table: In some states, penalties vary greatly. Some states do not have escalating penalties based on prior convictions, but rather they base it on the stipulations listed here: which animal was subjected to cruelty, how harsh the cruelty was, whether there was intent to sell, whether classified as misdemeanor or felony, how valuable the court deems the animal, and whether it lives or dies. All punishments regard maximum penalties.

 On the flip side of this, there are states that have some interesting provisions that invoke harsh penalties. For example, in Arizona, even just being present at a dogfight is a Class 6 Felony, which carries anywhere from a six month to a six year sentence, depending on priors. Penalties can also be more harsh if they happen in the presence of a child. In relation to this, 75 percent of animal abuse incidents occurred in the presence of women and/or children. When one considers that a child who witnesses this is three times more likely to be violent towards an animal compared to those in a peaceful household, these numbers become even more alarming.

Another area in which the states have vastly different laws is forfeiture; that is, what happens to the animal after it has been abused? What happens to the abuser, and above all, who gets to decide all of these things? In most cases, the court decides what will happen to the pets of abusers. More often than not, these pets are part of a family, and a lot of states allow for other family members, many times victims themselves, to claim exclusive custody of the pet. At the same time, the abuser is not allowed to come within a certain distance of that pet. Restrictions for abusers can also include not owning an animal of any kind for a certain amount of time, and not coming within a certain distance of any place where pets are often found. Language is intentionally left vague in some states, as this allows judges to approach each case uniquely and make a recommendation that specifically applies to the case.

Not all states are as proactive towards preventing repeats of incidents. The authority of law enforcement to seize and otherwise protect animals they suspect are suffering abuse could be crucial to preventing further incidents. For example, Wyoming only has specific protections for livestock in this regard, not domestic pets. But laws change constantly, and they for the most part have been moving in the proper direction. Recently, Nebraska imposed laws that allows for authorities to investigate, obtain search warrants and arrest those they suspect of animal cruelty. This is important because it helps prevent further crimes of violence from happening.

It’s startling how often animal abuse coincides with domestic violence, but perhaps even more alarming is that cruelty towards animals serves as a prognosticator of such tragic events. Research shows that those who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit a violent act against another person.

Correlation Between Animal Cruelty and Domestic Abuse

A lot of studies show that animal abuse is what’s known as an indicator crime. One survey says that a history of animal abuse was found in 30 percent of convicted child molesters and 36 percent of domestic violence offenders. The propensity of animal abuse and domestic violence is particularly troubling, because 64 percent of homes with children under the age of six have a pet.

Research has shown that 48 percent of convicted rapists admit to committing acts of cruelty against animals during their childhood. This is one reason why psychological testing could be so important. Currently, 3 of the 5 states ranked as the worst for animal protection by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) do not require psychological testing be done on those arrested or convicted of animal cruelty. Overall, there are 19 states that fail to have this requirement. It is very noticeable how strong the connection is between the worst states and those without psychological testing.

There are efforts being made to curb the frequency of these tragic circumstances. One of those efforts is that more than half the states now include protective order legislation for animals in domestic violence situations. This means that a victim of such violence can be guaranteed that any domestic pets in the household will be given the exact same protections under law that the human gets. It’s extremely important that such a provision exist, because studies show that domestic violence victims will sometimes stay in the abusive relationship because they fear for the pet’s safety.

While no one can argue the benefits of a program which allow ex-convicts, or sometimes even those currently behind bars, to use and own therapy dogs, these need to be examined closely from one person to the next. Not allowing a convict with a violent past to own a pet is another thing that could help. Research shows that up to 70 percent of animal abusers have a criminal record, most with a violent act towards humans.

One thing that could also help curtail, not just animal abuse but it’s happening alongside domestic violence, is all states requiring abuse be reported by veterinarians. Currently there are 15 states without specific provisions that call for said reporting, and allowing this could not only alleviate some of the burden from the victims themselves, but bring them peace of mind in knowing that there are many upon whom they can rely in a time of crisis.

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

21 comments

    • It depends on which state it’s in Georgia, but the range (for a first offense) is pretty wide. In some states is 60 days, in others it’s 7 years. Here in California, the max penalty for a first offense is 1 year in jail.

  • Thanks for putting this together. I have some questions about sources, esp. for Alabama. I don’t see a Contact Us section. May we briefly correspond by email?

  • Just reading about the different definitions of animals, offences and consequences makes it really interesting how differently the laws can differ across one country. Thanks for writing this, really interesting!

  • What side is this paper on when it comes to animal cruelty do this article says it should be a felony or a misdemanor

  • I live in a apt community low income houyseing. some of the tenants there hhave called aminal shelter to pick up cat leaving there kittens to dye alone with no food or water, the apt complex say we can,t feed are water stray cats and there kittens, I think that it is curel to allow this just because some one say that they have walked on cat mess in the yard, cat,s cover there mess always , can i take the tenant or the property manger to court over this? I live in booneville miss,

    • Earl, that sounds awful, unfortunately I don’t think you be able to take them to court. I think the best you can do is calling the animal shelter to help take care of them.

  • Hi. A stray dog was in my yard, my daughter took it in the house etc. It was a puppy.. a very busy puppy. I work almost every night. I had to sleep. I did not want to call Animal Control because i know that within 48 hours the animal will be put to sleep.
    I did a dumb thing ( not knowing what to do) and put the puppy in a fenced yard in a new expensive subdivision thinking that most likely they had money and would know other wealthy people who might want this puppy.
    However. I did not count on my tag being tracked down and being located by Animal Control.

    What can I expect in court on Wednesday ? A fine of what range in money? Lord forbid, Jail time? … I would literally lose everything I have.

    I live in Georgia.
    Missy

    • Malissa, I’m not sure what sort of fine you may be in for. Hopefully, the court understands your position. You are absolutely right that you should not have dumped the dog in someones yard, though. Like it or not, calling animal control or taking it to the SPCA would be the right call – especially for a puppy that likely has a better chance of being adopted than an older dog.

  • This website was very helpful for in a school project and i do agree with what y’all are doing here and I support y’all in all of this, also i showed this to my teacher and he said that y’all are doing the right thing.

  • What does “The whole brute creation”, for animals covered, mean? I see that listed in my state of NJ.

    • I found this, whatever the “lower animals” means:

      Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary

      The brute creation the lower animals

      • Diane, the term is used to define animals. It harkens back to the 1700’s and includes all animals. It is a dated reference but still appears in law. Other states define animals as any ‘dumb creature’ – in context meaning they cannot speak for themselves.

        • Thank you. I noticed, in Googling it, that it’s also mentioned in the Bible. That was a surprise!

  • On 1/9/2017 I took my four dogs running at Goose Island County park, Lacrosse, WI.
    I four American Terrier, two boys, two girls. They love people and great with my grandkids. They do not, chase wild animals. They are smart, loved to play, so sweet and full love.
    Brooklyn one of my girls, fell on the Ice in 2014 and torn all her Ligaments, muscles and destroyed her Right left leg. She now has arthritis and hip dysphasia. She can no longer run and no dogs can jump on her or her the little legs will give out.
    dogs. She was been great.
    While at Goose Island they were walking around. A large dog came from out of the tree’s right up to Brooklyn. There was no one with the dog. It’s hair went on end and it growled, then grabbed Brooklyn by the neck and slamming her down. Her legs went up in the air and she let out a scream of pain.
    Bella came running to her rescue, trying to pull the dog off Brooklyn. Suddenly a large gray haired man with a blue coat, black pants and blue ski mask hat came walking out of the woods. He yelled, “get off my dog.” I could see my dogs were not hurting his dog, more like mouthing it.
    The man pulled out a knife and stabbed both Brooklyn & Bella.
    Bella fell down. His dog then began to maul Bella’s face. I threw my arm up screaming stop and the man’s dog bit into my hand.
    The man was waving his knife, slashing out everywhere. I was standing right next to the man. (I screamed in pain, your dog bit me. “The man said, “Good you Fucking Bitch”. Then the man sliced me across the wrist with his knife.
    Bella was able to jump up and run down by a tree. Brooklyn was stabbed in the Lung. She fell over on the ground bubbling blood and crying. His dog took off about 200 yards and sat down.
    The man went crazy, stabbing Brooklyn repeatedly, as she was crawling towards my van, crying in sever pain on the ground the man kept walking over top of her stabbing repeatedly on her, then he stabbed her in the throat.
    The man quickly walked down to the tree where Bells was sitting, moaning in pain and he began butchering her. And he stabbed her in the back at a angel severing her spinal cord. The man pushed her over on the ground with his foot. She kept lifting her back right leg up and down, crying and screaming.
    Tar Tar came running to Bella’s rescue. The man began stabbing him in the face and chest. Rudy would not get involved and sat in front of my van shaking.
    Then he just walked up to my Rudy who was sitting there shaking violently. The man stood over top of him and stabbed him in his right side then pulled the knife out and stabbed him in his left side. Rudy folded over.
    The man turned and yelled at me, “That’s what you get for having, Fucking Pit Bulls, and I am going to my vehicle get my big gun and come back and shoot you and your dogs in the head.
    Oh my God there was so much blood. I was screaming for the man to stop and begging him. I had 911 on the line, screaming and crying he was killing all my dogs.
    I was able to get the 3 dogs in my van. Brooklyn was bubbling blood from her mouth, blood was pouring from her 13 stab wounds.
    I could see Bella laying down by the tree, she was screaming so loud and her right leg keep going up and down. My god she was suffering so bad.
    My God these are my babies, my world, my life! They are all I have! My heart was breaking. I was open mouth, scream crying!
    My dogs never attacked his dog. My dogs never attacked the man. My dogs were severely wounded, and two died and his dog is fine.
    The man told the police he knows he killed one and hopes the others die!
    I feel the man was looking for an excuse to stab and kill my dogs because the are pit bulls.
    What this man did was absolutely cruel and horrible beyond words.
    My loss, My pain, My traumatic experience over this, I will never get over it ever! Every time I shut my eyes, I see it all over and over again and keep screaming and crying! I can sleep!It is so empty and lonely without my girls.

    The Shelby Police wont press charges on the man, because all dogs were off leash.

    My boys came home on 1/10/17. Rudy will have permanent muscle damage and his life will not be as long now. Sever arthritis will set in after it heals, I was told.

    Tar Tar Is all shaved and stitched and has a drain bag coming from the side of his chest. There will be a lot more vet care needed for along time to come for my two boys.

    • Oh my God. I’m so sorry. What a horrible “human being” he is.
      I would file a civil lawsuit. It can’t hurt to try.

  • I have a question, I don’t know if you are able to help me with an answer. It would be greatly appreciated if you can. On Monday, February 6 2017 my 19 year old son, who lives with my husband and myself committed a terrible act. My son and myself were arguing about him not paying his part of the household bills for him and his girlfriend. During the argument he slammed the door to the living room and locked me out. As a result, I was in the back part of the house and my 10 month old cat was in the living room with him. During that time he drop kicked my cat. A few minutes later he left and went to my husband’s, his father, place of work. He went there to talk to my husband about the argument we had. He called me from there to apologize. After I hung up the phone I was looking for my cat who I found hiding under the sofa, unusual for her to do. I got her out and noticed that she was acting strange but I thought she was just scared from all the yelling and doors slamming. I tried to get her to walk to me, not yet knowing what had happened to her. She was unable to walk and had a small seizure. I called my husband and was telling him about her condition. While I was on the phone with my husband my son returned home. I put him on the phone with my husband while I tended to my cat. My son admitted that he drop kicked my cat, at that time my husband told my son that when he got home he was going to beat his ass. My son was terrified and called the police stating that his father was threatening him. The police were there 3 times that day. A police officer drove me and my cat to the animal hospital Monday evening. I didn’t have the money for them to do xrays so they gave her a shot of pain medicine and sent us home with a lust of things to watch for and to bring her back if she got worse. Over night I stayed by her side and monitored her and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible. The vet said if her breathing got any worse or if her gums changed color, anything besides pink, to bring her back. By morning her gums were as white as a piece of paper and her breathing was extremely labored. We took her to a different animal hospital Tuesday morning and she was euthanized “due to intentional blunt force trauma”. The vet said she had severe internal injuries and internal bleeding. They gave her the sedative to start the euthanasia and she took 3 breaths and went on her own without a full euthanasation. The sedative relaxed her enough to let go. Now we are awaiting our son’s court date on February 22nd. My question is what is the penalty fo a felonyr animal cruelty charge when the animal dies and it’s his first offense. He has never been in any legal trouble before but he also has to be in the same courtroom on the same day and time for a drug paraphernalia charge from 2 weeks before the tragedy with my cat. I want justice fir Callie, therefore I will also be in the courtroom to speak for her. I love my sin but he has to answer for what he did. I have looked online and seen some information about situations like this but I am a little confused about the sentencing. Any help you could give to clarify the penalties in these types of cases would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    • Marietta,

      It’s going to depend on where you live and what exactly transpired. Have a look at the table to see what the maximum penalties are for your state. This situation will likely not warrant extremely severe penalties, despite being a terrible situation. A judge may recommend anger management or therapy though.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *