Animal Law

Animal Cruelty Laws in Pennsylvania

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
It’s illegal in Pennsylvania to mistreat, neglect, or abandon animals, or to tether dogs outside under certain conditions. Penalties can range from fines to felony charges.

Cruelty to animals is illegal in Pennsylvania, as it is across the country. The law in Pennsylvania is comprehensive and detailed, covering many different forms of mistreatment. Some of the legal provisions are specific to certain types of animals, including service dogs, homing pigeons, baby chicks, and zoo animals. Below, we’ve summarized the most important laws that pet owners and animal lovers should know about.

Levels of Cruelty to Animals

In Pennsylvania, animal cruelty can result in penalties ranging from fines to jail time for a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the level of the offense:

  • Generally, it’s a “summary offense” (with a fine of up to $750 and/or 90 days in jail) to abandon, mistreat, abuse, beat, or overload an animal intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.
  • The same types of abuse will result in misdemeanor charges when the animals are injured or placed at risk of immediate, serious injury.
  • The crime becomes a felony if the animal dies or is seriously injured.
  • It’s also a felony to torture an animal intentionally or knowingly.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5550, 5533, 5534.)

In addition to other penalties after a conviction for animal cruelty, the court may order the defendant to surrender the mistreated animal. That surrender becomes mandatory in the case of felony cruelty. The court may also prohibit the abuser from having any other animals for a period of time. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5554, 5555.)

Animal Neglect

The state also outlaws neglecting any animals in your custody by not giving them:

  • necessary food and drinkable water
  • access to shelter that’s clean, gives protection from the weather, and allows the animals to stay dry and retain their normal body temperature, and
  • needed veterinary care.

As with animal cruelty, penalties for neglect range from fines to felony charges, depending on the extent of the risk or resulting injuries. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5532, 5534(a)(2).)

Tethering Dogs Outside

When dogs are tethered unattended outdoors, Pennsylvania has set out detailed requirements, including:

  • The dog must tethered for less than nine hours in a day—or less than 30 minutes if it’s hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit or below freezing.
  • The dog must have access to water and shade.
  • The tether must be a certain type (no tow or log chains) and length, depending on the dog’s size and breed.
  • The tether must be attached to a well-fitted harness or collar (not a choke or pinch collar) with a mechanism that prevents tangles, like a swivel anchor.

Dog owners could be charged with animal neglect if they don’t follow these rules. Some conditions—including open sores on the dog or too much waste in the area where it’s tethered—will create a rebuttable presumption that the animal was neglected. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5536.)

Cropping, Docking, and Debarking

Certain procedures on a dog are considered animal cruelty if they aren’t done by a licensed vet with anesthesia, including:

  • ear cropping
  • tail docking
  • cutting the vocal cords, and
  • cesarean births.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stats. § 5542.)

Poisoning Dogs

Pennsylvanians can be fined for putting out poison or any harmful substance in a where a dog could easily find and eat it. If the poisoning was intentional, it’s a misdemeanor. (3 Pa. Stats. § 459-601(b), (b.1).)

Organized Animal Fighting

It’s a felony in Pennsylvania to participate in organized animal fighting in any way, from owning or training the animals to betting on a fight or simply attending as a spectator. (18 Pa. Cons. Stats. § 5543).)

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 neglecting my cat because I don’t have the money for expensive vet treatment?
  • Animal control officers came in my yard and took my dog after a neighbor complained about so-called abuse. Can they do that without a warrant? How can I get my pet back?
  • I was charged with animal cruelty for poisoning my neighbor’s dog. But it wasn’t my fault: The dog got into the rat poison only after digging a hole under my fence. What can I do?
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