Animal Law

Animal Cruelty Laws in Washington, D.C

The District of Columbia outlaws animal cruelty, neglect, abandonment, and other forms of mistreatment.

Cruelty to animals is illegal in Washington, D.C., as it is across the U.S. The district’s animal protection laws may not be as comprehensive as in many other parts of the country, but they cover the basic forms of abuse and neglect. Below, we’ve summarized the most important laws that pet owners and animal lovers should know about.

(Because laws can change at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statutes here.)

What Is Animal Cruelty?

In D.C., animal cruelty includes various forms of mistreatment and neglect that are done knowingly, including:

  • torturing or tormenting animals
  • cruelly beating or mutilating animals
  • abandoning an animal in your custody (which includes leaving it in a public place more than three hours after learning that it’s disabled)
  • carrying an animal in or on a vehicle in a cruel way
  • inflicting or allowing any unnecessary cruelty on an animal in your custody, and
  • neglecting an animal in your custody by not giving it proper food, water, air, light, space, shelter, protection from the weather, and veterinary care.

Animal cruelty is generally a misdemeanor, but it becomes a felony if the defendant meant to seriously injure or kill the animal, or the cruelty had that result and the person showed extreme indifference to animal life. In addition to the criminal penalties, the court may (but doesn’t have to) order the abuser to give up any rights to the mistreated animal and not to have other animals for a period of time. (D.C. Code §§ 22-1001(a), 22-1002, 22-1012).

Chaining Up Animals

It’s also a misdemeanor in D.C. to chain up or tether an animal in a way that could endanger its health or safety, including when:

  • the tether is too heavy, could get tangled up, or causes choking
  • the animal can’t move around enough or get away from harm, or
  • the animal doesn’t have access to food, water, shade, dry ground, or shelter.

As with other kinds of animal cruelty, improper tethering may be charged as a felony if the animal was injured or died. (D.C. Code § 22-1001(a)(1), (b).)

Exceptions to Animal Cruelty

D.C. exempts properly conducted scientific experiments from its animal cruelty laws. In addition, anyone who kills or injures a dangerous wild animal won’t be charged with felony animal cruelty as long as the person had a reasonable fear of immediate attack. (D.C. Code §§ 22-1001(d), 22-1012(b).)

Expanded Emergency Protections for Animals

In July 2017, the Washington, D.C. Council passed emergency legislation that significantly strengthened the district’s animal protection laws. Among the most important changes:

  • A new measure that prohibits people from leaving their animals in parked vehicles in a way that endangers the animals’ health, safety, or welfare. Law enforcement, firefighters, and animal control officers are allowed to use reasonable force to get the animal out of the car if it appears to be in danger. Officers should try to contact the owner first, unless the animals are in immediate danger or distress.
  • Detailed requirements for providing animals with adequate food, water, care, space, and shelter, including additional shelter needs when dogs are confined outside in cold or hot weather.
  • A 15-minute limit on leaving most animals outside during extreme weather.
  • New prohibitions on abandoning animals or doing anything to harm them intentionally.

The emergency legislation is effective for no more than 90 days after July 31, 2017, but the Council is considering permanent legislation with similar provisions.

Organized Animal Fighting

Any form of participation in organized animal fighting is a felony in D.C., from owning or training the animals to watching or betting on a fight (D.C. Code § 22-1006.01). Anyone who urges dogs to fight each other in a street or public place may be fined up to $1,000 (D.C. Code § 22-1310).

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?
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