Animal law is a relatively new specialty area within the law. Animal lawyers are attorneys who specialize in cases involving animals, and are generally lawyers who practice law regarding injury to property. Animal lawyers specialize in property law, due to the law treating injuries to animals as injuries to personal property. 

It is important to note that it is against the law in every state in the U.S. to treat animals cruelly, although each state's laws differ as to what constitutes animal cruelty. State laws have recently developed stiffer penalties for animal cruelty, due to public opinion regarding animal cruelty. This means that the laws regarding animal cruelty in many states are reletively new and still developing. 

However, most state laws prohibit a variety of types of mistreatment of animals, with criminal and civil punishments ranging from a misdemeanor charge with small fines to felony charges with severe fines and possible imprisonment. 

Further, many states not only have laws protecting domesticated animals such as a dog or cat, but also have animal cruelty laws that extend to all wild animals under the care and control of a facility. This means that, animal cruelty laws protect livestock from inhumane treatment as well. There are generally two forms of animal cruelty: animal abuse and animal neglect. State laws vary as to when animal neglect charges escalate into animal abuse. 

For example, some states may consider leaving a dog outside in the winter to be a form of animal cruelty and neglect for failing to properly shelter an animal. In comparison, some other states might not consider that a form of animal cruelty or neglect. 

What is Animal Abandonment?

Animal abandonment, often used interchangeably with animal neglect, occurs when an owner or caretaker of a pet or other animal neglects the animal. This can happen by not providing the basic necessities for the animal’s survival, such as food, water, and shelter. For most states, proper shelter includes enough space to move, access to food and water, general clean conditions, and some form of protection from severe weather. 

Additionally, in most states it is illegal to dump an animal in a public place or leaving an animal without providing for its basic needs. Animal abandonment in these situations is often hard to enforce, due to most animals being left without proper identification. 

Some states, such as New Jersey, make it a crime to leave an animal chained or tied up outside for more than 30 minutes in bad weather, such as rain, snow, or very hot temperatures. Other states make it illegal to leave animals unattended in a vehicle for longer than a certain period of time, due to the possibility of the animal experiencing heat stroke. Owners who abandon their animals may be found guilty of animal abandonment or neglect, even if they didn’t intend to be cruel, so long as they did not provide the proper amount of care. 

What is Intentional Animal Cruelty?

Intentional animal cruelty, also known as animal abuse, is the more severe form of animal cruelty that occurs when a person severely harms a protect animal. Most state laws classify some or all of the following as intentional animal cruelty:

  • Injuring an animal that doesn’t belong to you, such as tripping a horse;
  • Torturing, maiming, or mutilating an animal;
  • Seriously overworking or overloading a work animal;
  • Leaving animals in cars for a certain period of time, or in severe weather conditions;
  • Transporting or confining animals in a cruel manner;
  • Killing, poisoning, or seriously injuring an animal without the legal authority to do so; or
  • Otherwise beating or injuring an animal unnecessarily or cruelly. 

As can be seen, the forms of animal cruelty listed above are more serious, and are often punished with more severe criminal penalties. 

What are the Legal Penalties for Animal Cruelty?

Historically, there were little to no penalties for animal cruelty or abuse. However, as mentioned above, states have outlawed many different forms of animal cruelty with punishments ranging from misdemenors to felonies. 

Typically, the difference between a misdemeanor charge for animal cruelty and a felony charge for animal cruelty depends on a variety of factors. These can include: the level of cruelty, the number of animals involved, whether the alleged abuser has previous convictions, and the result of the animal cruelty. 

For example, if a person has previous offenses of animal cruelty, and then kills an animal, that offender would likely be facing a felony charge with fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, 1 year to 10 years in prison, or both. 

Some states may treat lesser animal cruelty, such as simple abandonment or neglect as mere infractions. However, almost every state will treat repeat offenders who participate in more severe animal cruelty as persons deserving of a felony charge. If charged with a misdemeanor or felony, your permanent record will also reflect the charges made against you, possibly affecting future employment. Further, in addition to imprisonment and fines, animal cruelty may result in the offender being prohibited from owning animals in the future. 

What should I do if I saw an Animal Being Abused?

If you believe that you have seen an animal being abused, it is important that you report the incident to your local authorities and not take the law into your own hands. Your local authority will be able to analyze the situation and address the issue, punishing the person who abused the animal. 

Further, as noted above, state laws vary as to what constitutes animal abuse. This means that what constitutes animal cruelty is dependent on your specific state law, not how you feel. For example, seeing people ride a horse, pony, camel, or elephant, even when the animal looks upset, may not rise to a level of animal cruelty. 

Thus, If you see or suspect that someone is mistreating animals, it is best to contact your local humane society, animal welfare group, or your local authorities. Humane society agents in many states have the legal authority to investigate complaints of animal cruelty, and may even seize animals that have been subjected to abuse. Also, the humane society agents may tell you whether local law enforcement is able to intervene, or step in to help, even if the owner’s behavior isn’t considered illegal. 

What should I do If My Animal was Abused?

If your animal was abused, you should immediately report the situation to the local authorities. Further, you should document any evidence of animal abuse or cruelty, as you may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the offender in civil court or bring the case to the attention of your local district attorney. It is important to remember that although your pet is a member of your family, in the eyes of the law they are considered personal property. 

Thus, a typical civil lawsuit for animal abuse or cruelty is typically limited to the market value of the animal. Only a very limited number of courts award damages based on emotional distress, or order punitive damages

Should I Talk to a Lawyer Regarding Animal Cruelty Laws?

As noted above, if your animal has been injured or abused, you may be able to pursue criminal charges against the person who injured your animal, file a civil lawsuit against them, or both. If you are considering filing a civil lawsuit, you should contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your area to evaluate your claim, and help guide you through the entire legal process. An experienced and licensed personal injury attorney in your area will be able to help you gather evidence, file your case, and represent you in court, if necessary. 

If you have been accused or charged with animal cruelty, you should immediately seek out a well qualified and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney, as the penalties for animal cruelty may be very serious. An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area will help explain the charges or accusations against you, as well as help you present the best defense according to the specifics of your case. Further, they will be able to represent you in court, if necessary.