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Is It Legal to Hit Your Pets?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

There's a bit of controversy among pet owners about whether its legal to hit your pets.

In most jurisdictions, pets are considered "property" for purposes of determining custody during a divorce, for example. Pets also can't own property, which is why you generally shouldn't try to leave your dog your house in your will.

But do pets have legal protection when it comes to physical discipline?

Animal Cruelty Laws Vary by State

Many pet owners consider their pets children. And just like disciplining children, the legality of physically disciplining your pet depends in large part on what state you live in as well as the degree of force used.

In some states, such as Massachusetts, animal cruelty laws forbid torturing, tormenting, or "cruelly" beating an animal. Is a swift kick to your dog's rear end for barking at a stranger a "cruel" beating for purposes of the Massachusetts animal cruelty statute? Possibly, but not likely.

North Carolina's animal cruelty law, which also prohibits torturing, tormenting or cruelly beating an animal, defines those three somewhat vague concepts as referring "to any act, omission, or neglect causing or permitting unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death" of an animal. So are you justified in smacking a cat off your furniture? It may depend on how hard you do it. North Carolina's statute also prohibits intentionally injuring or wounding an animal, so if your smack produces visible wounds or broken bones, you could potentially be charged with a misdemeanor.

Examples of Animal Cruelty

Generally, these animal cruelty statutes aren't intended to police the discipline of pets by their owners but rather more serious instances of causing pain or death to animals.

In one notorious case, a Florida man who strangled, skinned, and then ate his dog was convicted of felony animal cruelty. Another likely way to face animal cruelty charges is to leave an animal locked in a hot car.

An illustration of the tough-to-define nature of animal cruelty laws is the case of a Washington state man who blew his dog up with explosives. Prosecutors initially declined to charge him with animal cruelty because it wasn't clear the dog "suffered," which is a requirement under that state's animal cruelty laws.

While this doesn't necessarily mean it's legal to beat your pet, the likelihood of being prosecuted for disciplining your animal in a humane and sensible fashion is low.

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