Animal Law

What to Do If You Witness Animal Abuse

When Michael Vick was convicted for his role in a dog fighting scheme, the country's attention was focused on animal cruelty. He's since served his time in jail, and that sad episode is over. But animal abuse and cruelty remains a problem.

What's Abuse?

Animal abuse takes many forms. Animals can be abused anywhere from homes to farms, from pet stores to circuses. In addition to dog fighting, animal abuse also includes:

  • Neglecting an animal by locking it in a car during hot weather, or leaving it in other locations without food, water or shelter
  • Abandoning a pet, such as when the owner no longer wants it or can no longer afford to care for it 
  • Maliciously hurting, torturing, maiming or killing an animal
  • Hoarding animals
  • Failing to provide medical care to sick or injured animals you own

Animals are silent victims. They can't reach out to authorities for help. So, law enforcement officials often rely on reports from friends, neighbors and other witnesses.

If in doubt about whether something is or isn't abuse, it's better to err on the side of caution and report the suspected abuse. Authorities will investigate and decide whether a crime has been committed.

Report It

Who's in charge of investigating claims of abuse and enforcing the laws varies from state to state. Contact your local police, animal control, humane society or animal shelter to find out who's responsible for enforcing anti-cruelty laws in your area. You can also check with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. For most states, you can find information about:

  • Who has the responsibility to investigate reports of abuse reports
  • Who can make arrests in abuse cases
  • Snippets of animal-abuse laws

Unless it's an emergency, gather some basic information before calling the authorities to help them understand the problem:

  • Write down details, such as the address where the abuse happened; the date it happened; what you saw; and who was abusing the animal
  • Take photographs or videos of the abuse in progress if you can do it without risking your safety

Make copies of everything. Give a copy to the authorities and keep a copy for your records.


Most people's first instinct is to report abuse anonymously. However, if the abuse is serious enough to go to trial, prosecutors may need you to testify to help prove a crime was committed. Because defendants in criminal cases have the right to face their accusers, you can't testify anonymously.

In the end, however, the animal's welfare is most important. It's better to report abuse anonymously than not to report it all!


In many cases, owners aren't abusing their pets on purpose. Usually in these cases, the authorities help educate the owners about the humane treatment of their animals. Authorities may issue a ticket and then come back later to make sure the problem has been corrected.

If authorities think the problem is severe or life-threatening, then the animals may be taken away from the owner immediately. The same may happen if an owner doesn't fix an earlier problem. In these cases, authorities usually tell the local prosecutors; they decide whether the owners should be charged with a crime.

Penalties for animal abuse vary by state. Abusers found guilty of misdemeanor abuse charges may have their animals taken away. They also may be ordered to perform community service, pay a fine, or undergo counseling.

If the abuse is a felony, the owner may face probation, or jail time and a fine. In most states, certain types of animal cruelty are felonies, like most forms of animal fighting, including dog fighting.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a city make it illegal to own certain pets within the city limits?
  • Is it against the law to kill animal pests on my property?
  • Do I have a right to reclaim my pets if they're taken from me? 
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