What Constitutes Animal Cruelty?

Cruelty to dog

Acts of violence or neglect perpetrated against animals are considered animal cruelty. Examples include overt animal abuse, dog and cock fighting and companion animal neglect where the animal is denied basic necessities of care such as fresh water and food or shelter.

Many people who witness or hear about cruelty are not aware that legal action can be taken to help stop the problem. Companion animals are primarily covered by state animal cruelty laws, which vary from state to state and county to county. Animal welfare organizations across the country work daily to educate people about the proper care of animals and how to prevent animal cruelty.

Animal cruelty can be divided into two general categories: neglect and intentional cruelty.


  • Neglect is the failure to provide an animal with the most basic of requirements of food, water, shelter and veterinary care.
  • Neglect may be due to ignorance on the animal owner's part and is usually handled by requiring the owner to correct the situation. If the problem is not corrected, the animal may be removed from the neglectful person by law enforcement authorities.

Intentional Cruelty

  • Intentional cruelty is often more shocking than neglect and is frequently an indicator of a serious human behavior problem.
  • Intentional cruelty is when an individual purposely inflicts physical harm or injury on an animal. (The ASPCA and other organizations with cruelty investigation authority have arrested individuals who have deliberately maimed, tortured or even killed animals.)
  • Although many individuals are arrested for intentional cruelty, people who commit even the most heinous crimes against animals are often not prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In states where animal cruelty is considered a misdemeanor, individuals who commit intentional cruelty crimes against animals can receive, at most, one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Often, perpetrators receive no more than probation.
  • Someone who is violent towards animals may be violent towards family members or others.

Animal Cruelty Laws (State-to-State)

  • 33 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that make intentional cruelty a felony charge, while the remaining states treat animal cruelty as a misdemeanor.
  • Many animal cruelty laws specifically exclude accepted animal husbandry practices involving farm animals, animals used in research, and lawful hunting and trapping of wildlife.
  • Many states now require the person convicted of cruelty to undergo psychological evaluation and counseling, in addition to paying a fine or serving a prison sentence.
  • An increasing number of states are instituting cross training and reporting programs that involve social service workers who are likely to see cases of animal abuse during the course of their work in domestic violence and child abuse cases.
  • A number of states provide civil and criminal immunity to veterinarians who report suspected cases of animal abuse to law enforcement authorities, as veterinarians are likely to be the first to come in contact with an abused animal.
  • Enforcement of animal cruelty laws can be carried out by local police or by humane or municipal agencies that are granted power from the state or local government.

Advice from the ASPCA

  • If you witness or hear about animal cruelty taking place, report it to your local humane organization or call your local police.
  • Learn about animal-friendly legislation pending in your state - visit the ASPCA's online Advocacy Center.
  • Become a member of the ASPCA Legislative Action Team and take an active part in passing legislation. E-mail all inquiries to government@aspca.org or call the Government Affairs & Public Policy department at 212-876-7700 ext. 4550.
  • Teaching future generations to respect animal life will make our society more humane. Make sure schools in your town include humane education as part of their curriculum. E-mail the ASPCA at education@aspca.org for classroom resources.
  • If you own a pet, be responsible and provide him with annual veterinary check-ups and preventative medical care; spay or neuter your cat or dog to reduce pet overpopulation and urge your friends to do the same.
  • Support your local animal rescue organization or shelter with donations of money, food or supplies. Volunteering your time or fostering a shelter animal is a good way to make a difference. Fostering helps socialize abused or frightened animals before they are adopted.

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