Dog Cruelty: Know What to Look for & Stop The Violence

Prevent and stop dog cruelty
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Turn on the news almost any day of the week, and you’re bound to hear another story about a dog being rescued from a neglectful owner or a case of hoarding. No one understand how people get into these situations, and why these poor defenseless animals have to suffer for the mistakes of their owners, but these cases have brought to light just how little protection pets really have. Cases of dog cruelty are rampant all over the country, and it’s the job of both the states and the federal government to ensure that neglectful and abusive owners face the full weight of the law for their actions.

But dog cruelty is more than simply beating a dog or leaving it outside to face the elements without any shelter. There are various acts that fall under the banner of dog cruelty and it’s important that you be aware of them so that you can know what to look for, and to ensure that you’re not going to have the law officials brought to your doorstep.

Typical Dog Cruelty Laws

These laws vary from state to state, and not all states cover all of the actions mentioned below. Some have statues that are broadly-worded to outlaw «inhumane» and «needlessly cruel» treatment of dogs and other animals. Other focus on very specific acts of mistreatment, such as leaving your dog locked in a hot car or ear cropping without the use of anesthesia.

Dog in cage

These are just a few of the actions that are covered by a majority of animal cruelty laws that can apply to dogs:

  • torture or overworking
  • failure to provide necessary food, water, and shelter
  • unreasonable abandonment
  • cruel transportation or confinement
  • kills, injures, or administers poison without legal authority or the owner’s consent
  • takes action to force one animal to fight another
  • uses a live animal as a lure in dog track racing

Dog fighting is usually listed in a separate statute for most states, due to the severity and complex nature of this kind of activity.

The more common kinds of dog cruelty are now going to be discussed.


Neglect is probably one of the most common issues when it comes to the suffering of dogs. There are many people who consider their dogs as just property instead of a part of their family, and leave them outside to mostly fend for themselves against the weather and other wild animals that may be around. Many people don’t get charged with neglect because they still provide sufficient food and water to ensure their animals don’t get taken away. On the other hand, it’s also the easiest conviction to charge someone with.

Criminal convictions usually require there to be some kind of intent, but not with neglect. In some states, it is enough for the person to know he was neglecting his dog for him to be prosecuted with animal cruelty. In other states, such as North Dakota, the actions of the person alone are enough to make them guilty.

Willfully or knowingly, their actions have led to the suffering of their dog. In order to convict someone of neglect, the state must prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest standard to meet.

Dog big neglect

Some states do require some confined animals to be provided with sufficient space to exercise, so as to avoid behavioral issues that may arise from boredom. Certain cities, such as San Francisco, list very specific ordinances that should be met, such as shelters being clean, dry, raised above the ground, and being big enough for the dog to comfortably lie down.

So why is neglect considered to be cruel? A dog undergoes a lot of pain if they don’t receive enough food or water, or is exposed to the elements. Death by starvation occurs through several painful stages as the dog deteriorates: the initial loss of body fat and muscle loss makes it difficult for the animal to move around, and the eventual organ failure makes their suffering even worse. The liver starts to degenerate, there are changes in the heart, and anemia occurs, making it more difficult for the blood to carry oxygen around the body.

When it comes to a lack of shelter, a dog can quickly succumb to the heat or cold and even die before they receive help. Animal control has found dogs frozen to the ground on many occasions, already dead and only a few feet away from the homes their owners live in.

This is more frequent with dogs that are chained up outside, and usually left alone. Not only does this increase the likelihood of becoming ill from extreme temperatures, but it also deprives them of much-needed socialization with their family members. Isolation can lead to many behavioral issues, such as aggression, self-mutilation, and neuroses that can be difficult to correct the longer these dogs remain in such conditions.

Malicious Cruelty

This kind of cruelty receives the highest punishment, because of the willful intention of the owner or guardian of the animals. It can result in a prison sentence, as well as a fine amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.

Dog malicious cruelty example

Even conduct that’s malicious but not particularly harmful can still receive a conviction of malicious cruelty. For example, in North Carolina, a man was annoyed with his neighbor’s cat and set a live trap for it.

The inside was painted red so that he could identify the cat once it was set loose. Once caught, the cat was covered from neck to tail with red paint. This didn’t cause any harm to the cat, as the paint was easy to wash off, but the man was charged with malicious cruelty and fined $40.


It seems like a good idea to try and rescue as many animals as you can from shelters, but you could end up in a lot more legal trouble if you end up having too many dogs in your home. It’s a crime called hoarding, where people believe themselves to be rescuers of these poor animals with no home.

However, there’s no reasonable way a person can take care of so many animals in their care, and many of these hoarders end up living in filth with barely enough space in their homes for all of their dogs to get enough exercise. It’s a recipe for disaster, as well as illness, and many hoarders go right back to their old habits even after they’ve been charged with a crime and released.


It’s an all too common story: an owner gets tired of his dog, takes him for a drive down the road, and dumps him in a field to fend for himself, believing that since he’s descended from wolves, he’ll be able to survive. However, that belief is far from the truth. The domestication of dogs has taken centuries, and they’re so far removed from their wild cousins that many of those instincts no longer exist.

Dog abandonment- stray dogs

Abandonment is a difficult crime to report, as the only thing witnesses can really do is report the license plates of the vehicles driving away. And then it becomes a matter for animal control to handle. If these dogs happen to be microchipped, then the owners can be contacted and then charged with abandonment; if not, then there’s really no way to find the original owner unless someone has knowledge of who he is. In some states like New York, it’s considered to be a misdemeanor, and can receive a prison sentence of up to a year, a fine of $1000, or both.

Vehicle-related Crimes

There are two kinds of vehicle-related crimes when it comes to dog cruelty: confinement in an unventilated car and hitting a dog with your car.

  • Confinement in a vehicle: many states and cities forbid dogs from being left in cars without sufficient ventilation. In areas where these statutes don’t exist, it could still be considered cruelty under a more general law.
  • Hitting a dog with your vehicle: a driver who hits a dog and knowingly doesn’t stop is guilty of a crime. Care should be exercise in finding the owner of the dog or taking the dog to get medical attention if one cannot be found immediately.

Cosmetic Cruelty

It’s become a ritual for many breeds to have the ears and/or tails docked, such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. This practice is usually done when they are puppies because their bones are still soft and haven’t started to fuse together yet.

Cosmetic cruelty treatment

It’s illegal in many countries in Europe, but is still legal in the United States. Massachusetts is the only state that makes ear cropping illegal, unless the owner’s veterinarian can show that the process was reasonable necessary. A violation of this law can lead to a fine of up to $250.

In other states where it is legal, governments have required that the process be done by a licensed veterinarian while the dog is under anesthesia in order to eliminate any pain.

Cruelty by Pet Shops and Puppy Mills

Pet shops and puppy mills are nothing new in recent news stories, but the prospects of stopping them doesn’t seem to be getting any better. These places are notorious for not having the best interests of the animals at heart, as they’re only focused on making a profit.

Pet shops treat puppies and dogs they sell as mere merchandise, and don’t care much for their well-being. They’re kept in small pens for many hours during the day, and aren’t provided with the stimulation a puppy needs to be socialized properly.

Dog cruelty by pet shops

And the ones supplying these pet shops aren’t any better. Puppy mills are all about making the big dollars, and treat sick animals as «spoiled goods.» Medical attention is rarely every provided, as this would cost the mills more money that they’d like to spend, resulting in a lot of sick dogs and the easy transmission of diseases from one to the other.

Anti-cruelty laws have been set up specifically against these facilities to ensure that the dogs in their custody receive the best care possible, such as having sufficient food and water, having enough space to play, and receiving necessary medical attention when they are sick. The added restriction of puppy mills requiring licenses should be an added hurdle to the process, but with how many there are across the country operating illegally, it can be difficult to stop them all.

The Federal Law in Regards to Dog Cruelty

In recent news, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will start prosecuting animal abuse as a crime against society, and will start tracking and gathering information related to such incidents. This is a Group A felony so that such actions receive extremely harsh sentences, as well as identifying young offenders.

They’ve defined animal cruelty as «intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills an animal without just cause.» This includes torturing, tormenting, mutilating, poisoning, or abandoning an animal in one’s possession and has title to. Their definition of animal abuse, however, is not extended to the maintenance of animals that are kept for show or sport, animals used for food, and in areas where there is lawful hunting, fishing and trapping.


Is there ever a defense to animal cruelty? There is one, but the actual specifics of it are not always clear. The anti-cruelty law does not apply if a dog is injured or killed if it is attacking another person or livestock, or destroys property.

Exceptions you must consider

What is considered property differs from state to state, and there must be a reasonable interpretation on the judge’s part as to whether the defendant’s actions were justified.

What Citizens can Do

If you suspect that someone you know is engaging in any of the activities mentioned above when it comes to their dog, there are steps you can take to ensure the well-being of that animal’s life. It’s not an easy process and will take a long time before the case can even be brought to court, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

The first step is to figure out which agency in your area is responsible for the enforcement of anti-cruelty laws. It could be the local SPCA, humane society, or animal control. If one doesn’t exist in your area, then calling the police or sheriff’s department is your next best bet.

If the situation isn’t immediate, you can do some research online or at your local library as to what the anti-cruelty laws are in your county or state. Make note of them and bring them to the attention of the proper authorities. On the other hand, if the life of the animal is in immediate danger, then you should call the authorities immediately. Follow up with them to determine if a course of action is being taken.

End dog cruelty!

Once you’ve determined that the law is, in fact, being broken, you’ll need to provide the authorities with evidence. Keep your statement short and focus on the facts. It should detail the key points in the mistreatment of the animal, and should include dates, times, and locations where each incident occurred.

Your statement should be made as soon as possible after you’ve witnessed it, as the more time that passes, the more likely specific information is forgotten, which can cloudy your witness statement. If you’re able to, take pictures or video, and add the time stamp feature to them on your device. If you can, get statements from other citizens who have also witnessed the treatment.

Keep a record of everyone that you’ve contacted during this period of time, both officials and ordinary citizens, as well as the dates and the content of your conversations. Photocopy every piece of documentation you have so that you always have copies for your files.

It should be made clear to the authorities that you’re interested in pursuing this case, and that you’re willing to provide assistance as much as necessary to ensure that the life of the dog in jeopardy is not put at more risk. Staying involved will encourage them to follow through.

At this point, the proper authorities should be taking the evidence you’ve provided to them and conducting an examination of the conditions in which the dog is living in. If  the living conditions are terrible enough or the dog is clearly in danger, then they’ll likely remove the animal immediately in order to provide it with medical attention.

Saved scared dog

What’s most important is that you’re persistent from beginning to end. It’s that kind of attitude that saves the lives of these unfortunate animals and brings to the light the kind of mistreatment they’ve received.

Final Words

Cases of animal cruelty have been brought more and more into the light, and the perpetrators of these crimes have been receiving harsher sentences in order to tell the country that this crime is taken every seriously. Unfortunately, there will always be cases that pass under the radar, and the innocent animals and pets have to suffer for it.

Don’t stand by and let the mistreatment of animals continue. If you see something, tell the authorities as soon as possible.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.