If you own a dog, you know that it can be a big responsibility. You need to make sure your best friend is regularly fed and watered, and gets plenty of exercise. But you also are responsible for making sure that your dog is a “good citizen” if it goes outside of your home.

In most cases, that means you are responsible for making sure that your dog doesn’t injure any people or damage any property when you’re out for a walk together. However, in some areas, especially rural areas, this responsibility may also have an added layer of making sure your dog doesn’t bother your neighbors’ sheep, cows, horses, or other livestock.

What Counts as Livestock?

In most cases, “livestock” means commercially valuable animals like cattle, sheep, or horses. Usually, pets or wild animals are not included in the meaning of livestock. Depending on the state you live in, state law may list specific kinds of animals that are protected.

Some states indicate that a dog may be killed if it chases or attacks a “domestic animal.”  Again, depending on the state you live in, a “domestic animal” may or may not include pets.

Are there General Rules for When Dogs Kill Livestock?

The rules may vary depending on where you live, but there are two general rules that are in common across the board:

  1. Owners of livestock may kill dogs that are harming or harassing their livestock (the owner’s action is justified by defending his property)
  2. Dog owners are always financially liable for the livestock that their dogs harmed.

What are “Predator” Dogs?

Many states have laws that specifically allow farmers or ranchers to kill dogs that are harassing or attacking their livestock. However, a dog simply running through a field where there are cows or sheep is probably not enough to justify killing the dog.

You don’t have the right to kill a dog simply for trespassing—it must be caught in the act of chasing or hurting your livestock. The idea is that you have a right to defend the livestock in danger. 

Additionally, you cannot shoot a dog simply because it has harassed livestock in the past—past transgressions do not invoke the premise of self-defense. The incident must be happening in the present time.

What if the Dog is Fleeing the Scene?

If the dog has already left the property, the rules may differ depending on what state you live in. Some states do not allow people to hunt down dogs that have left the property, even if the dog has harmed or attacked livestock before leaving.

Other states allow farmers to follow and kill dogs for harming livestock, even if the livestock is no longer in immediate danger. In those cases, you likely need to find the dog within a “reasonable time” of the dog’s interaction with the livestock.

Can I Poison the Dog Attacking My Livestock?

As a general rule, it is illegal to poison animals on purpose, and may constitute animal cruelty. However, some states may make exceptions for predatory animals, as long as you follow certain rules and post warning signs about the poison. Also, be sure to attempt to contact the owner or your local animal control so they have an opportunity to stop the situation before you attempt more drastic measures.

You should always check your state law (preferably with an attorney) before deciding to use poison to protect your livestock from predatory animals. It is important to know exactly what your state’s rules are regarding how and when you may use force and shoot to defend your livestock against a predatory dog.

Otherwise, if you make a mistake and your state’s rules do not support the circumstances of the altercation, you may be liable to the dog owner for any injuries to the dog. If you are not sure what your state’s rules are, it is a good idea to consult a lawyer to get clarification.

What are State Reimbursement Programs for Livestock?

Whether the dog in question gets away or gets shot, the owner of the livestock may sue the dog’s owner for the damages it caused—dead or injured livestock or other losses that may occur because of the injuries. An experienced attorney will be able to help you evaluate the potential losses.

However, sometimes it may not be an easy task to find the person who owns the dog who killed your livestock. In some cases, the owner of the livestock may not find out about the incident until some time later. 

Some states have created programs to help farmers recover their losses when they lose livestock due to dogs. These programs require quick action in order to qualify for compensation—you will need to notify the state as soon as possible after your livestock has been injured. The state of Illinois, for example, has a 24-hour notice requirement in order to qualify for reimbursement.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Handle a Dog that is Attacking My Livestock?

If you have lost livestock or cattle due to the behavior of an unruly dog, or if you own a dog that may have been attacking or harassing other domestic animals, it is in your best interests to contact a lawyer with experience in either animal law or personal injury law

If you are facing possible criminal charges due to shooting a dog that was harassing your livestock, then a criminal defense attorney can help you analyze the situation and work towards the best possible outcome.