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What Is Considered Animal Cruelty Under the Law?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

You may have heard of or seen incidents of animals being hurt or mistreated by humans. But what exactly is animal cruelty under the law?

One recent case has animal rights activists fuming. A North Carolina woman was arrested and charged with felony animal cruelty after she allegedly let her dog die of starvation. The dog had medical issues, and the woman claimed she spent hundreds of dollars trying to nurse the dog back to health. Animal control investigators suspected foul play when the dog was surrendered to animal control, sick and severely underweight. The case is pending, and if convicted, the woman could spend up to 30 months in jail.

Did the woman really commit animal cruelty? The simple answer is that it depends on the jurisdiction.

Federal Law

Unfortunately for animals, federal law doesn't have a specific animal cruelty statute. However, the Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the USDA, does regulate the transportation, breeding, and sale of animals. This law applies mainly to commercially bred animals and animals used as test subjects.

The law requires those animals to be given adequate care, housing, sanitation, and nutrition. Research facilities must minimize discomfort and pain of test subjects, maintain psychological health of primates in laboratories, and allow dogs opportunity for exercise, among many other requirements.

The law also specifically prohibits dogfighting, cockfighting, and wildlife baiting.

State Laws

Unlike the federal government, most states do have specific statutes addressing animal cruelty. The laws, while generally similar, vary from state to state. For example:

Though these laws are in place, enforcement may also vary by jurisdiction depending on the resources available to police and prosecutors.

If you have been charged with animal cruelty, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help.

Related Resources:

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