Cruelty to animals is illegal in New Jersey, as it is across the country. The state’s laws are relatively strong and comprehensive, covering a range of behavior from torture to leaving pets outside in bad weather. Below, we’ve summarized the most important laws that that pet owners and animal lovers should know about.
Animal Abuse and Neglect
It’s a crime in New Jersey to abuse animals in a various ways, including:
- torture, maiming, poisoning, or cruelly beating an animal, either intentionally or recklessly
- killing an animal needlessly
- not providing necessary care, and
- leaving an animal alone in a vehicle under harmful conditions.
The penalty for criminal animal abuse depends on the nature of the conduct, the extent of the animal’s injuries, and whether the person had a previous conviction for similar behavior. The state also allows civil lawsuits based on animal cruelty, to require the violator to pay up to $5,000, plus costs. (N.J. Stat. §§ 4:22-17, 4:22-26.)
Anyone who abandons a domestic animal—or any sick or injured creature—can be found guilty of a “disorderly persons offense” (similar to a misdemeanor) and fined up to $1,000. (N.J. Stat. § 4:22-20.)
Exceptions to Animal Cruelty
New Jersey exempts several kinds of legal activities from its animal cruelty laws, including:
- scientific experiments that are authorized and conducted properly
- legal hunting or fishing, and
- killing rats or mice that aren’t pets.
(N.J. Stat. § 4:22-16.)
Leaving Pets Outside in Bad Weather
It’s illegal in New Jersey to leave dogs, service animals, or any pets in “adverse environmental conditions” for more than 30 minutes unless they have access to proper shelter (see below for more on shelter requirements) or their human caretaker is with them or can see them the whole time. The law defines these adverse conditions as including:
- temperatures below freezing or too hot (90 degrees Fahrenheit or above), and
- other bad weather (like wind, rain, snow, ice, sleet, or hail) or dangers (like direct sunlight or hot surfaces) that reasonable people would know could be a risk for the animal’s health.
Whenever there’s an emergency evacuation order, people should do their best to evacuate with their pets, take them somewhere safe, or at least secure them in a protected area and tell emergency responders where the animals are located.
Anyone who violates these requirements could face the penalties for animal neglect (described above). However, a first offense will generally result in a warning unless authorities had to seize the pet because it was at risk of immediate harm. (2016 N.J. S.B. 1640, §§ 2, 7(f), 8(a).)
The state outlaws chaining or tying up (“tethering”) dogs under cruel conditions, including:
- on vacant property or in an unoccupied building
- for more than 30 minutes in adverse environmental conditions (see above) or if the dog doesn’t always have access to clean water
- with a tether that’s less than 15 feet long or doesn’t allow the dog to move 15 feet
- in a way that allows the dog to get tangled up or strangled
- with a heavy chain or a weighted tether
- with a choke collar or any device other than a well-fitted buckle collar or harness
- any tethering of young puppies (less than four months old) or nursing females.
The weather and tether-length restrictions don’t apply if the dog’s custodian is with or can see the animal the entire time. People who violate the tethering requirements will be fined for the first and second offenses; after that, they’ll face penalties for animal neglect. (2016 N.J. S.B. 1640, §§ 3, 8(b).)
Shelter and Carrier Requirements
New Jersey law spells out detailed requirements for shelters, carriers, crates, and any places where dogs, service animals, and all pets are confined or can get to for protection from the weather. The minimum standards for proper shelter include:
- adequate ventilation
- enough room for the animal to move around, lie down stretched out, and sit without touching its head on the ceiling
- access to clean water
- natural light or artificial light that mimics daily light cycles
- sound construction (not with a wire floor or wood that emits certain chemicals)
- no crawl spaces, and
- protection from rain, flooding, and extreme temperatures.
These requirements don’t apply when pets are temporarily in animal carriers or crates, except that the crates have to be big enough so that the animal can turn around, lie down, and stand without hitting its head. Violations of these requirements are treated like animal neglect, with warnings for first offenses. (2016 N.J. S.B. 1640, §§ 4, 5, 7(f), 8(b).)
Organized Animal Fighting
It’s a third-degree crime in New Jersey (similar to a felony in other states) to participate in organized animal fighting in various ways, including watching or betting on a fight. (N.J. Stat. § 4:22-24, 2C:33-31.)
Speaking With a Lawyer
If you’ve been accused of animal cruelty—or you’re worried about possible charges—it’s a good idea to speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney experienced in this area should be able to explain:
- details on relevant state laws
- how local authorities tend to interpret those laws
- ordinances in your local community that may apply to your situation
- how you might recover your pet if authorities have already taken it, and
- any defense you might have to criminal charges.
Other questions you might have for a lawyer include:
- My neighbor keeps his dog chained up outside all day in the hot sun. The animal is clearly suffering. I’ve complained to the police and animal control officials, but no one will take any action. Would it be illegal for me to rescue the dog?
- Could I be charged with animal cruelty if I can’t afford vet treatment that my cat needs?
- Even though my landlord knows that tenants have dogs, he left out rat poison around the building that my dog ate. Could I sue him for the vet bills?