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Overview of State Cruelty Laws

Rebecca F. Wisch


Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
2005 (updated 2010)
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Overview of State Cruelty Laws

 

"My neighbor leaves his dog outside when it's freezing without a dog house or other shelter.  Is this animal cruelty?"

The answer to this question depends entirely on state law.  Today, every state has an animal anti-cruelty statute.  These laws do not afford animals legal rights, but rather serve as the primary legal protection for animals in our legal system.  It should be noted that there is no overarching federal anti-cruelty law; rather, all fifty states have individual anti-cruelty laws. 

With that in mind, state laws penalize two types of actions under their anti-cruelty provisions: (1) intentional acts and (2) the failure to act.  Intentional acts are those acts of cruelty where the actor knowingly tries to hurt an animal by repeatedly striking an animal, burning an animal, or committing some other heinous act.  These acts will often be classified the most severely under the applicable criminal law (serious or repeat offenses may even constitute felonies under the specific state law).  The situation in the question above, however, most likely falls into the realm of a failure to act.  The failure to provide food, water, necessary shelter, or in some states, reasonable veterinary care, may be considered animal neglect.  Depending on the state law, neglecting to provide shelter to an animal in a cold climate may be considered neglect (for example, Minnesota has a specific provision in its cruelty laws for dog houses when dogs are kept outdoors; violation is a petty misdemeanor).  While neglect may be broadly defined by state law, the factual circumstances will always determine criminal culpability.  In the situation above, a prosecutor would have to prove first that state law demanded outdoor shelter; second that the weather necessitated shelter for domestic animals; and finally that the owner failed to provide necessary shelter based on the time the dog spent outdoors.  (Click on the Map of State Cruelty Laws to see what your state defines as "cruelty.")

Anti-cruelty statutes operate only in the criminal system; that is, a person cannot sue another person under these laws to recover money for injury to his or her pet.  (But see an interesting case in New York where a private citizen did try to sue the AKC for the required docking of certain dogs' tails for dog shows under the state cruelty law. Also, see the laws of North Carolina, §§ 19A-1 to 4, which allow any person to seek an injunction to stop cruel acts, subject to the exceptions listed).  Most of the state anti-cruelty laws function as misdemeanor offenses (generally those lesser offenses in the criminal justice system that carry penalties of a fine or jail time for less than one year).  However, most states have felony provisions for aggravated acts of cruelty, where the offender commits heinous acts such as mutilation and intentional infliction of pain or death.  As of 2009, about forty-six states have some felony provisions in their anti-cruelty and/or animal fighting laws.  This trend to charge certain acts initially as felonies as well as graduating repeat offense to felonies has occurred in many states.  (For an in-depth discussion of such a change, see a recent article on Minnesota's change).  Still, much progress still needs to be made.  Many believe that the apparent reluctance to prosecute animal cruelty as felonies stems from many factors including limited resources, incomplete investigations, pressure from the community to focus on other crimes, and even the personal feelings of the prosecutor toward animal abuse. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of most laws is the definition of “animal.”  While such a definition may seem self-evident outside of the legal world, the term “animal” can be as broad under statutes to include “all living creatures” or as narrow to include only vertebrates or mammals.  Common provisions under anti-cruelty laws include mandatory counseling or education, community service, restitution (in some cases paid to a local ASPCA), seizure of the animals, reimbursement for the cost of care, and limitations on future animal ownership.  Common exceptions include veterinary practices, research, hunting, fish, trapping, food production, pest control, rodeos, zoos, circuses, and killing of one’s own animals on his or her property if done humanely.  Minnesota, Mississippi, and Oklahoma do not provide any exemptions to their animal cruelty laws.

In the table of state laws or map of state animal cruelty laws, it may be instructive to compare several state provisions (when looking at the table, click on the state abbreviation that has the "consolidated cruelty statutes.")  However, the reader is cautioned that these laws are provided not as a comprehensive list of state criminal statutes, but rather to demonstrate how each state protects animals. 

Whether the impetus behind the adoption of such laws is to weed out potential future sociopaths or the actual concern for all living creatures, these laws provide the first, and sometimes only defense for many animals.

 

[For more on the historical development of cruelty laws in the United States, click here.]

[For laws, see the Map of State Cruelty Laws ]

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