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Animal Cruelty

Guide No. 65 (2012)

by Kelly Dedel

The Problem of Animal Cruelty

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover


This guide begins by describing the problem of animal cruelty and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local animal cruelty problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

Animal cruelty is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to animals. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by animal cruelty. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

Nuisance or Hazardous Animals

Harm to Animals Incidental to Other Motives

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.


General Description of the Problem

Animal cruelty includes many kinds of mistreatment, from temporarily failing to provide essential care to the malicious killing or repeated torturing of an animal. Every state defines animal cruelty differently, both in terms of the specific actions that are prohibited and the categories of animals that are protected. For example, hunting is exempted from animal cruelty laws and livestock are not protected, even though in both cases the animals are killed and quite often suffer. Laws in some states protect wild animals from frivolous harm (e.g., “thrill killing”), although most animal cruelty laws are designed to only protect “companion animals” or pets.

Animal cruelty cases tend to span the jurisdictions of several state and local agencies and departments, and the agency officially responsible for handling animal cruelty cases varies. Some jurisdictions have sophisticated programs within animal welfare organizations (e.g., Humane Societies, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Control) with specially trained staff who respond to all complaints of animal cruelty. They may be called animal cruelty enforcement agents, humane law enforcement agents, cruelty investigators, or animal control officers, and while they may have the legal authority to investigate and enforce animal cruelty laws, the public often grants them less legitimacy than police.1 In some jurisdictions, animal cruelty enforcement agents collaborate with police. In places without local animal welfare organizations, police may be solely responsible for enforcing all animal-protection laws.2 Where local humane agencies exist, police tend to refer complaints of animal cruelty to these agencies, even though they often lack the funding, expertise, and resources to investigate animal cruelty cases.3

The intense public reaction to animal cruelty cases covered by the media suggests that the public is concerned about the treatment of animals and believes animal cruelty to be a social problem worthy of police attention.4 Because police routinely come into contact with people at their homes where their animals are ordinarily kept, the officers are in an ideal position to identify warning signs of animal cruelty and neglect. While some cases will be arduous, involving lengthy investigations, search warrants, and complex crime scenes, most cases of animal cruelty are not particularly complicated. Particularly in cases of simple neglect, police who identify the signs of animal cruelty can offer information, suggestions for improving animal care, or warnings, which will usually rectify the situation before a serious tragedy occurs.5

Types of Animal Cruelty

The following types of animal cruelty exist:

Warning Signs of Animal Cruelty

While specialized training is desirable, particularly for complicated hoarding cases or cases of physical abuse that will be prosecuted, most police officers need only a basic familiarity with animals’ health and normal states of being to identify the warning signs of animal cruelty. These signs may include the following:7

Prevalence of Animal Cruelty

National crime-reporting systems do not monitor animal cruelty. Doing so would be very difficult, because enforcement authority is scattered across thousands of state and local agencies, laws vary across states, and standardized reporting structures have not been developed. The two major efforts to collect data on the prevalence of animal mistreatment rely primarily on media reports, rather than enforcement records, as the source.

One survey of school-aged children in the United States found that 30 percent admitted to committing some form of animal cruelty.8 Another survey found that 14 percent of the population had witnessed someone “intentionally or carelessly inflicting pain or suffering on an animal in the past year.”9 This translates to over 15 million incidents of animal cruelty in a single year. Over half of the respondents stated they reported the incident to a law enforcement or humane organization. One study estimated that approximately 5,000 cases of hoarding are reported each year, with roughly 40 animals involved in each case.10

Despite the lack of national data, most researchers agree that cases of neglect constitute the vast majority of animal cruelty cases.11 However, unless the neglect is extreme or involves a large number of animals, these cases are rarely discussed by the media. As a result, the public may not fully understand the prevalence and nature of animal cruelty.12


† Until 2004, the Humane Society of the United States collected data on animal cruelty cases covered in the media. It discontinued the project because of excessive demands on staff (Lockwood 2008). Press clippings were also used build the Animal Abuse Registry Database Administration System (AARDAS), a private system which was launched in 2002. While the website includes a search engine and crime-mapping capabilities, it includes only those cases with a media reference or that proceeded to court. As of April 18, 2011, the database included over 17,000 cases in six countries.

Harms Caused by Animal Cruelty

The most obvious harm caused by animal cruelty is the pain and suffering endured by the animal. In contrast to what is often presented by the media, happy endings in cases of physical cruelty are rare: the abuse is often ghastly and victim animals are rarely returned to good health or adopted by a loving family.13 Particularly in hoarding cases, severe crowding and a lack of socialization create health and behavior problems that may leave animals unadoptable and at risk of euthanasia.14 One study of animal cruelty cases in the media in 2003 found that 62 percent of the animal victims were either killed by the perpetrator or euthanized because of their injuries.15 Long-term outcomes are better for victims of mild neglect, provided their owners change their approach to the animal’s care.

In addition to the animal suffering inflicted in even the least sensational cases, the more complicated hoarding cases also generate significant public health concerns. Homes of hoarders are generally filthy, with an accumulation of animal feces and urine on the floor, sometimes several inches deep. The resulting ammonia gas creates toxic air. Utilities and major appliances usually do not work, and most of the basic activities for a functional and sanitary household (e.g., showering, sleeping in a bed, preparing food) are impaired. Carcasses of dead animals are often found in hoarding locations, many of which are eventually condemned.16

While animal cruelty is a serious social problem in its own right, interest in its association with other forms of violence has motivated a great deal of research. Groups of researchers in both the United States and the United Kingdom assert that people who harm or kill animals are at high risk of interpersonal violence.17 These researchers assert that people who mistreat animals will do so habitually and are likely to be violent to their partners and children. Further, they claim that victims of child abuse are likely to harm animals and are more likely to be violent toward humans as they mature. Most of these studies examined the prevalence of animal cruelty among incarcerated, violent offenders.

However, citing methodological flaws in the research and overly broad generalizations, a few researchers believe the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence has been overstated.18 Given that most people who have been cruel to animals have not gone on to commit increasingly violent acts towards humans, these researchers worry that assuming a direct link will cast the net too wide and result in misdirected resources.19 The same set of external factors (e.g., stress, poverty, substance abuse) may underlie multiple forms of violence. However, cruelty to animals, alone, is not a particularly influential predictor of interpersonal violence, and animal cruelty may precede or follow other types of violent offenses.20

Factors Contributing to Animal Cruelty

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine effective measures in response, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Animal Victim Characteristics

Dogs and cats are the most frequent victims of neglect and physical cruelty, although birds, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and reptiles are sometimes abused. Most victims of animal cruelty are pets, not wild animals.21 A survey of veterinarians’ experience with abused animals and suspected abusers revealed that offenders may physically abuse younger animals (age 7 months to 2 years), who are full of energy and sometimes difficult to train.22

Wild animals (e.g., raccoons, possums, deer) may be brutally attacked by poachers who intentionally hit the animal with a car or beat them with a club or bat.23 The animals are killed not for their meat, but rather for sport or the thrill of causing harm.

Hoarding cases usually involve dogs and cats and most involve multiple species.24 These cases typically involve dozens of animals, or in extreme cases, hundreds.25

Offender Characteristics

Neglected animals are often found in households where residents have alcohol and drug problems and where residents are overwhelmed and have difficulty meeting their own basic needs.26 Further, some pet owners are simply ignorant of animals’ basic needs and how to train them effectively.27 Even though their cruelty is unintentional, owners who lack this essential knowledge may severely neglect their animals.

Although a few studies have shown that a small proportion of violent adult criminals were chronic animal abusers as children, most children who are cruel to animals commit mild, infrequent acts of cruelty and eventually grow out of it.28 Their cruelty is motivated by curiosity, peer pressure, boredom, or a lack of knowledge about animals.29

Perpetrators are most likely to be older adolescents or young adults. Males commit intentional acts of cruelty toward animals more often than females.30 While abuse occurs at all socio-economic levels, it is concentrated in lower socioeconomic households.31 Physical cruelty is often motivated by unrealistic expectations about how animals should behave, and offenders cause pain and distress in an effort to control or retaliate against the animal. They may also express anger about other situations by abusing the animal.32 In domestic violence situations, offenders may abuse animals in an effort to intimidate or control their human victims.33

Although far less common than physical abuse or simple neglect, hoarding has attracted a disproportionate amount of research. As a result, the profile of a typical hoarder is far more specific. Hoarders are most frequently single females who live alone, do not work outside the home, and are socially isolated. However, hoarding cases also involve single males and couples of varying ages and living arrangements. Research has identified several types of hoarders, including the following:34

Regardless of the motivation, without adequate treatment and limits on future pet ownership, nearly all hoarders reoffend.35

Times of Year and Locations Where Animal Cruelty Occurs

Research has not examined the specific locations where physical abuse or simple neglect occurs. We do know that although animal cruelty occurs at all socioeconomic levels and in all communities, it is concentrated in households of lower socioeconomic status.36 Media accounts suggest that animal cruelty occurs in or around private residences (when a pet is the victim) or in isolated public spaces (when the victim is a wild or stray animal). Although research describes the characteristics of the households in which hoarding occurs, we do not know the geographic concentrations of hoarding cases.37

Although the seasonal patterns of animal cruelty have not been researched in depth, the research implies that simple neglect (e.g., inadequate shelter) may be more prevalent during seasons with extreme temperatures.

Co-occurring Problems

The co-occurrence of animal cruelty with other forms of violence compounds the harms associated with it. Although the link between the physical abuse of animals and interpersonal violence is unlikely to be as causal as some research suggests, the occurrence of either type of violence should cue police to check whether other forms of mistreatment may also be present.38 The underlying conditions that create the opportunity for animal cruelty to occur (e.g., stress, deprivation, aggression, mental illness, prior victimization, drug and alcohol use) mirror the risk factors for interpersonal violence. As a result, people who abuse animals may be at risk of committing interpersonal violence, and vice versa. While presuming that people who abuse their pets also abuse their children or spouses is inappropriate, being vigilant about the potential co-occurrence of various forms of violence is only prudent.

Women in domestic violence situations may delay leaving a violent partner, in part because they are concerned about pets that would be left behind.39 Most domestic violence shelters do not accommodate animals. The social isolation and limited financial resources of domestic violence victims can prevent them from leaving their pets with family members, friends, or at a kennel. Many women in shelters report that their pets have been threatened, injured, or killed by their abusive partners. Batterers harm pets to exert control, prevent the victim from leaving, or coerce the victim to return.40

Finally, the chaos and filth that characterize hoarding locations have grave consequences for the health of the human inhabitants. Hoarders generally have poor hygiene and limited access to a sanitary environment for eating, bathing, and sleeping. These problems with self-care are often compounded by untreated mental illnesses.

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of animal cruelty. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.


In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in animal cruelty and ought to be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:


Asking the Right Questions

The following are critical questions to ask when analyzing your particular animal cruelty problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.


 Animal Victims


 Animal Victims



 Current Responses


Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results.

Take measures of your problem before you implement responses to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers and Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to animal cruelty. Process measures show the extent to which responses were properly implemented. Outcome measures show the extent to which the responses reduced the level or severity of the problem.

Process Measures

Use the following process indicators in your assessment:

Outcome Measures

Use the following outcome indicators in your assessment:



Responses to the Problem of Animal Cruelty

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular animal cruelty problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several strategies may apply to your community’s problem.

It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Do not limit yourself to considering what the police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help the police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those capable of implementing more effective responses. For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.

For further information on managing the implementation of response strategies, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 7, Implementing Responses to Problems.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Developing standardized data-reporting protocols. Reliable estimates of the prevalence of animal cruelty are not available at national, state, or local levels. Not only does the lack of data impede the ability to target prevention, education, and rescue efforts, but it also prevents further analysis of the relationship between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence. Centralized databases for reports of animal abuse and neglect should include information on offenders, victims, the nature of the offense, and the time and place where the abuse occurred. A simple design, standardized definitions, and data quality-control efforts are essential. Researchers suggest that we can learn from child abuse data-reporting protocols developed and implemented over the past few decades.41 Most importantly, those charged with the duty to report and enter data must be educated about the value of statistical data and the importance of their individual contributions.

Building a coalition among organizations focused on violence prevention. Coalitions harness the expertise, resources, leverage, and access of a diverse group of stakeholders to catalyze changes that members are unable to accomplish alone. Police, animal control officers, animal welfare organizations, social service workers, veterinarians, housing authorities, and health and fire departments all encounter animal cruelty during their normal course of duty but are often poorly informed about the warning signs and what steps to take if they become aware of animal abuse. Further, these groups are often unaware of the potential link between their concerns and animal cruelty or that their participation is needed to solve the problem.42 Although the humane treatment of animals is the top priority of animal welfare organizations, they are often ill-prepared to negotiate regulatory agencies and other government bureaucracies that need to be mobilized for an effective response to the more complicated cases of animal cruelty.43

Coalitions develop active lines of communication among agencies that are most likely to interact with either the animal victims or perpetrators of animal cruelty. Effective coalitions prevent redundant efforts, share resources, extend service areas, and address larger concerns (i.e., violence prevention) simultaneously.44 Coalitions need to develop cross-training and cross-reporting mechanisms and multidisciplinary response teams to better protect the victims of animal cruelty and to address the underlying causes of animal cruelty. Particularly in the case of animal hoarding, even after the animals are removed from the situation, the property remains unsafe and unsanitary and the causes of the offender’s behavior have not been addressed.45 Coalitions with public health, housing, and social services representatives will be better equipped to manage an animal-hoarding situation than the police acting independently.

Intervening early. Early intervention can prevent further or more serious animal cruelty from occurring. While it may make prosecution easier, waiting until an animal is severely injured is not in the animal’s best interest. Offering information and guidance at the first sign of an animal’s distress improves the likelihood that the harm to the animal will be limited.46 Most cases of animal cruelty are not complicated (e.g., animals without food, water, or proper shelter) and can be rectified by addressing the issues that led to the animals’ mistreatment.


† Practitioners in Toledo, Ohio, held a one-day workshop, "Violence is Preventable", which stressed the overlapping missions of the agencies involved. Key discussions included territoriality, fears about losing financial support and human resources, perceived threats to individual agencies' autonomy, and conflicts over style and methods of approaching the work (Boatfield and Vallongo 1999). Groups seeking to address the linkage between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence have developed guidelines for coalitions that include agencies from the "animal world" and the "human world" (Linkage Project 2010). The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium developed a five-step process for creating an integrated approach to addressing animal hoarding (Patronek, Loar, and Nathanson 2006).

Specific Responses to Reduce Animal Cruelty

Responses that Increase Suspected Animal Cruelty Referrals

1. Training across disciplines and developing cross-reporting mechanisms. Because the risk factors for animal cruelty mirror those for domestic violence and child abuse, groups working to reduce animal cruelty have an opportunity to merge various violence-prevention initiatives. Animal cruelty can signify broader family dysfunction. Training animal welfare workers on the mission, objectives, and procedures of child and adult protective services, and vice versa, highlights the common ground across the two worlds.†† However, knowing only what each organization does is not sufficient: staff need to know how to navigate the other agencies’ structures and must understand their cultures.47

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Image1: This bookmark, created by the Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force, includes information on what constitutes animal abuse and how to report it.
Photo Credit: The Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force. Used with permission


†† The Linkage Project trains animal control and welfare officers to recognize and report child abuse and train social-service staff to refer cases of suspected animal cruelty to the proper organization (Linkage Project 2010).

Once agencies have committed to working together and understand how their duties intersect, cross-reporting mechanisms are needed.††† When warning signs come to their attention, all staff need to understand how to exchange information within the boundaries of client confidentiality laws.48 Staff should be encouraged to collect information and report their suspicions, but should be deterred from attempting to investigate an issue that lies within another agency’s legal jurisdiction.49 Cross-reporting protocols have resulted in higher detection rates for all types of domestic abuse and animal cruelty.50


††† The Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force printed bookmarks titled "When It Comes to Animal Abuse, We Can't Speak for Ourselves. Will You Give Us a Voice?" The bookmark includes information on what constitutes animal abuse and how to report it (Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force 2010).

2. Training veterinarians to recognize and report nonaccidental injuries. Many animal cruelty offenders will not seek medical treatment for the animal. However, some offenders, nonoffending family members, or other concerned individuals will bring an injured or neglected animal to a veterinarian, placing veterinarians in an ideal position to detect and report animal cruelty. Dynamics suggesting an animal’s injury was not accidental include the following:51


While none of these warning signs are diagnostic on their own, veterinarians should be suspicious when they occur in combination.††††

When veterinarians detect suspicious injuries or conditions suggesting chronic neglect, many states require them to report their suspicions to law enforcement or humane authorities. Veterinarians should determine whether reporting is mandatory, what type of immunity is provided, and to whom to make the report.52

†††† The American Veterinary Medical Association developed a client questionnaire and decision-tree for assessing the risk of animal maltreatment (Arkow, Boyden, and Patterson-Kane 2011).

3. Increasing public awareness and surveillance. Public meetings, animal cruelty awareness campaigns, and outreach to school-age children can increase awareness of the warning signs of animal neglect and abuse. ††††† The public has become increasingly informed about animal cruelty through television shows like “Animal Precinct” and “Animal COPS,” along with media coverage of high-profile cases. Although media coverage raises awareness, the nature of the cases selected for coverage may mislead the public into thinking that animal mistreatment must be extreme in order to draw attention from police or animal welfare organizations.53 Public awareness campaigns should highlight the fact that most cases of animal abuse and neglect are less dramatic, but involve equally unacceptable mistreatment of animals.ψ Citizen patrols should be alerted to the warning signs of animal cruelty.


††††† The American Humane Association publishes a guide for parents introducing pets into their home to reinforce both animal and child safety (American Humane Association 2010a; American Humane Association 2010b).

ψ See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, for more detailed information.

4. Creating mechanisms for reporting suspected animal abuse anonymously. In some communities, people do not report suspected animal cruelty because they fear retaliation from the animal’s owner. When animal abuse reporting dovetails with other crime reporting programs or city-service request systems, and citizens can report their suspicions anonymously, they may be more likely to do so.ξ

ξ The Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force developed a mechanism for citizen watch patrols to report suspected animal abuse using a confidential crime-watch number. The caller’s identity is not given to the responding officer (Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force 2010).

Responses that Increase Expertise in Preventing Animal Cruelty

5. Developing expertise among criminal justice practitioners. A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) showed that only 19 percent of police officers in the United States received formal training on animal cruelty, only 41 percent were familiar with the applicable laws, and only 30 percent were familiar with the penalties that could be imposed for mistreating animals.54 Animal welfare organizations are often willing to teach police and prosecutors about the warning signs and symptoms of animal cruelty, and some schools offer animal cruelty investigation certification programs,φ 55 Training should include information on analyzing and interpreting animal cruelty laws, writing search-and-seizure warrants for animal cruelty cases, investigating animal cruelty, collecting and handling evidence from animal cruelty crime scenes, prosecuting animal cruelty cases, and advocating for appropriate penalties for convicted offenders.56 Police can also consult with prosecutors about how to address suspicious animal treatment encountered during the course of duty.ρ


φ The Chicago Police Department offers web-based training on animal cruelty for its officers. The department also collaborated with the local animal control agency to develop a reference manual for assembling an animal cruelty case and "palm cards" printed with essential information about state and municipal animal cruelty laws (Frasch 2008).

ξ At one time, the Fulton County (Georgia) Prosecutor's Office had a 24-hour hotline staffed by an attorney to ensure that first responders properly collect and preserve evidence at animal cruelty crime scenes. The prosecutor directed police to photograph certain elements of the crime scene, obtain samples of environmental materials, or to deliver the animal's body to a particular location for examination (Garrett 2008). Although this resource is no longer available, the model could still be replicated. Garrett (2008) provides specific guidance on the types of evidence needed for prosecuting animal cruelty cases.

6. Improving veterinarians’ abilities to conduct forensic examinations. Veterinarians play an essential role in the response to severe cases of animal cruelty and hoarding. If the case is to be prosecuted, veterinarians must document the physical condition of all of the animals involved, comment on prudent actions or standards of care that could have prevented the injury or death, determine the cause of death and the sequence of injuries, and identify and preserve evidence.57 Most veterinarians are not familiar with legal standards of evidence and do not regularly autopsy dead animals.λ Some communities will need to seek outside forensic veterinary expertise when confronted with complex or serious animal cruelty cases.ρ

λ Arkow, Boyden, and Patterson-Kane (2011) provide detailed protocols for collecting and preserving evidence in animal cruelty cases.

ρ The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Units travel to locations throughout the country to help police collect and process evidence at animal cruelty crime scenes. In addition, a few veterinary schools offer classes in crime-scene processing, determining the time of death or injury, bloodstain pattern, bite mark analysis, and so on (Siebert 2010).


Responses that Target Offenders

7. Providing Humane Education programs to at-risk children. Humane Education programs based in schools and the community teach children how to care for animals and how to interact with them in appropriate ways.58 Bringing at-risk children in contact with shelter animals can create empathy, which is believed to be a core protective factor. However, evidence as to the effectiveness of these programs is largely anecdotal.59


8. Educating low-level offenders. Sometimes, what can appear to be cruelty may be the result of ignorance or cultural traditions, rather than the intent to harm an animal. Further, some cases that come to the attention of police barely qualify as cruelty, yet have the potential to harm the animal if the owners’ practices continue unchecked. In these situations, adopting the role of an animal welfare educator can help police address the immediate problem without consuming expensive and time-consuming legal resources. For example, police can explain that tethered animals risk disease when forced to eat, sleep, urinate, and defecate in limited space and can suggest humane alternatives like fencing, kennels, and cable trolleys on swivels.60 Explaining why certain practices are dangerous and how to meet animals’ basic needs for food, water, and shelter may resolve the situation. Legal remedies should be pursued if education efforts are unsuccessful.

9. Prosecuting offenders. When offenders who have neglected their animals are unable or unwilling to comply with informal recommendations, or when the physical abuse of the animal is egregious, prosecution may be warranted. That said, animal cruelty cases are difficult to prove, often complicated, and require expertise in relevant laws, veterinary medicine, and veterinary forensics.κ Prosecution can be costly, time consuming, and is effective only when the underlying causes of the behavior are addressed through sentencing provisions.

10. Increasing the severity and range of penalties. Over the past decade, most states have enacted felony-level animal cruelty statutes that increase the severity of penalties associated with a conviction.61 The most effective penalties are those that impose fines, restitution, or other financial sanctions that can be used to defray the significant costs associated with the seizure, treatment, long-term care, and housing of mistreated animals.62 Mental health treatment should be required, as discussed below. Limiting offenders’ contact with animal victims and preventing offenders from owning animals in the future make recidivism less likely. Except in the most egregious cases, incarcerating offenders is unlikely to be popular when public safety resources are limited.

11. Counseling and treating more serious offenders. Many state laws require psychological evaluation and counseling for convicted offenders, usually at the offender’s expense. Because animal cruelty takes many forms and offenders have different motivations, the treatment approach should be informed by the surrounding factors, such as co-occurring domestic violence, substance abuse, trauma, or victimization.63 Unfortunately, many communities that have identified a need for specialized treatment for animal abusers have been unable to locate local, qualified professionals to provide the service.64, ζ


κ The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s (ALDF) "Zero Tolerance for Cruelty" campaign provides direct legal assistance to prosecutors handling animal cruelty cases. ALDF staff may conduct legal research, submit briefs to the court, and locate expert witnesses, among other services (Tischler 1999). In 2011 the National District Attorneys Association created the National Center for the Prosecution of Animal Abuse to aid prosecutors in building animal cruelty cases.

ζ The AniCare Model for the Treatment of Animal Abusers is a cognitive-behavioral treatment program for animal abusers that features models for adults and children. Workshops for social service and criminal justice professionals are also available.

Researchers agree that without treatment, most hoarders will reoffend.65 Simply removing animals and cleaning up the premises ignores the root causes of the offenders’ behavior. Instead, a multidisciplinary team (e.g., health services, social services, housing, mental health, and animal welfare, and law enforcement) should be convened to address the broader problems of untreated mental illness and inadequate self-care.Because hoarders differ in their motivations and willingness to understand what went wrong and how to solve the problem, treatment must be appropriately nuanced.66 The best results are obtained when the various professionals maintain contact with the offender over a period of time and make frequent, unannounced follow-up visits to ensure the hoarding behavior does not begin again.67 All contacts with the offender should be documented, including the nature of advice offered, observations about the conditions of the animals and the individual, and how their conditions change over time.68


† Nathanson (2009); Fleury (2007); and Patronek, Loar, and Nathanson (2006) offer additional guidance for professionals working with hoarders.

Responses that Protect Animal Victims

12. Seizing or requiring mistreated animals to be forfeited. People who abuse and seriously neglect animals have demonstrated that they are a serious threat to the animals’ well-being. Most states have provisions for police or animal welfare organizations to take mistreated animals into custody. Temporary seizure protects the animal pending the outcome of the legal process, while permanent forfeiture can speed the animals’ transfer to a safe, permanent living situation.69 Expertise in seizure and forfeiture laws is essential, because they are often complex and may have short deadlines.70 While seizure and forfeiture provisions protect animals from subsequent harm, they can place an enormous burden on the responsible agency, which must provide housing, treatment, and ongoing care.71 Some jurisdictions require offenders to post bond to compensate agencies providing care, with failure to pay resulting in permanent forfeiture of the animal.

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Image2: Most states have provisions that allow for abused or neglected animals to be taken into custody by the police or animal welfare organizations.
Photo Credit: Kathy Milani/The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

13. Creating foster placements for the pets of domestic violence victims. Many victims of domestic violence report that their abusive partners have threatened or mistreated their pets. Concern for their animals’ welfare and the fact that most domestic violence shelters do not accommodate pets are obstacles for women trying to escape domestic violence. Many states have foster-care placements and temporary shelters to protect animals from mistreatment and to facilitate continued contact between the victims of domestic violence and their pets. These programs must establish procedures for transportation, addressing the animals’ health needs, visitation policies, client confidentiality, and safety.‡‡, 72


‡ The Humane Society of the United States provides an on-line directory of Safe Havens for Animals (Humane Society of the United States 2009).

‡ ‡ Ascione (2000) created a guidebook containing the collective wisdom and experiences of programs sheltering pets for victims of domestic violence.

Summary of Responses

The table below summarizes the responses to animal cruelty, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
Responses that Increase Suspected Animal Cruelty Referrals
1 Training across disciplines and developing cross-reporting mechanisms Increases the likelihood that animal cruelty will be detected ...specific reporting protocols are established; investigations are conducted only by the agency with the legal authority to do so Information must be shared without violating client confidentiality
2 Training veterinarians to recognize and report non-accidental injuries Increases the likelihood that animal cruelty will be detected ...veterinarians ask about the causes of injury and observe the animal for unusual behavior; veterinarians know how to report their suspicions to police or the local animal welfare agency Many offenders will not seek treatment for the animals they have mistreated
3 Increasing public awareness and surveillance Increases the likelihood that animal cruelty will be detected ...information campaigns highlight the warning signs of ordinary mistreatment, rather than relying on sensational cases; citizen patrols are alerted to the warning signs of animal cruelty Residents may choose not to report because they fear retribution by the animal's owner
4 Creating mechanisms for reporting suspected animal abuse anonymously Increases the likelihood that animal cruelty will be detected ...animal cruelty reporting is made a part of other crime reporting programs or city service request systems; dispatchers are not given the reporting party's name Residents may not know how to access crime reporting systems; partnering with area Crime Stoppers can help publicize recent crimes and the availability of rewards
Responses that Increase Expertise in Preventing Animal Cruelty
5 Developing expertise among criminal justice practitioners Increases the ability to detect and respond appropriately to animal cruelty ...animal welfare organizations are involved in training; training includes sessions on relevant laws, investigative techniques, and evidence collection and preservation Training can be time and resource intensive; case consultation with prosecutors may be required to determine the best response to more complicated cases
6 Improving veterinarians' abilities to conduct forensic examinations Improving veterinarians' abilities to conduct forensic examinations ...veterinarians are familiar with legal standards of evidence Most veterinary medicine programs do not include courses in forensics
Responses that Target Offenders
7 Providing Humane Education programs to at-risk children Reduces the likelihood that children will mistreat animals ...children are brought into contact with animals Identifying children at-risk of animal cruelty can be difficult
8 Educating low-level offenders In cases of unintentional mistreatment, provides offenders with the information needed to properly care for their animals ...police adopt the role of an animal welfare educator; police explain why certain practices are dangerous and how to meet the animal's basic needs Some offenders will not follow the advice they are given and some do not have the necessary resources to provide proper care
9 Prosecuting offenders Increases the penalties associated with animal cruelty and may deter others from mistreating animals ...used to address only the most egregious cases or those in which the offender has not responded to informal recommendations Animal cruelty cases can require specialized evidence collection and expert testimony; caring for and holding animals as evidence may be costly
10 Increasing the severity and range of penalties Increases the penalties associated with animal cruelty, addresses the underlying causes of animal cruelty, and may deter others from mistreating animals ...financial penalties are used to defray the costs of treating and caring for the animal victims; offenders' contact with animals is severely restricted Some offenders will be unable to pay fines imposed; sentencing guidelines may not permit significant consequences for cases involving juveniles or first-time offenders
11 Counseling and treating more serious offenders Addresses the underlying causes of animal cruelty ...the treatment approach is informed by the presence of co-occurring problems (e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness); contact with the offender is maintained over a period of time to ensure the problem has not reoccurred Mental health professionals who are trained to address animal cruelty can be difficult to locate; offenders may have multiple mental health needs (e.g., substance abuse, history of physical or sexual assault)
Responses that Protect Animal Victims
12 Seizing or requiring mistreated animals to be forfeited Protects victims from further victimization; can prevent excessive holding periods which are a detriment to the animals and a burden to caretakers ...police have expertise in seizure and forfeiture laws, which can be complicated and often have short timelines; offenders are required to post bond to cover costs associated with animals’ care and treatment If bond is not required or posted, treating and caring for seized or forfeited animals can be very resource intensive
13 Creating foster placements for the pets of domestic violence victims Protects pets from harm ...foster placements have specific procedures for providing veterinary care, owner visitation, security, and confidentiality Aligning foster care availability with the needs of clients can be difficult; people willing to foster animals must be actively recruited


[1] Arluke (2004); Arluke (2006).

[2] Lockwood (2006).

[3] Schlueter (2008).

[4] Vollum, Buffington-Vollum, and Longmire (2004); Lockwood (2006); Lockwood (2008).

[5] Schlueter (1999).

[6] Arluke (2006); Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006); Patronek (2008); Solot (1997).

[7] Schlueter (1999); Schlueter (2008).

[8] Dadds et al. (2004).

[9] Lockwood (2008).

[10] Patronek (2008).

[11] Arluke (2006); Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006); Patronek (2008); Solot (1997).

[12] Arluke and Luke (1997).

[13] Arluke (2006).

[14] Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005).

[15] Humane Society (2004).

[16] Allan (2010); Arluke et al. (2002); Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005); Fleury (2007); Nathanson (2009); Patronek (2008).

[17] Turnbull (2000); Ascione (2008); PETA Research and Education Foundation (n.d.); Humane Society of the United States (1999); Linkage Project (2010).

[18] Patterson-Kane and Piper (2009); McPhedran (2009); Hackett and Uprichard (2007); Beirne (2004); Arluke (2006); Belle (2001); Duncan and Miller (2002).

[19] Hackett and Uprichard (2007); Patterson-Kane and Piper (2009).

[20] Patterson-Kane and Piper (2009); McPhedran (2009); Hackett and Uprichard (2007); Pierpoint and Maher (2010).

[21] Arluke and Luke (1997).

[22] American Humane Association (2005).

[23] Delong (2010).

[24] Patronek (1999).

[25] Animal Legal Defense Fund (n.d.); Patronek (1999).

[26] Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006).

[27] Pierpoint and Maher (2010).

[28] Hackett and Uprichard (2007); Dadds et al. (2004).

[29]Hackett and Uprichard (2007).

[30] Munro (1999); Humane Society (2004); Gerbasi (2004); Flynn (2001); Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006); Pierpoint and Maher (2010).

[31] Flynn (2001); Munro (1999).

[32] Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006); Patronek (2008).

[33] Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006).

[34] Patronek, Loar, and Nathanson (2006); Vaca-Guzman and Arluke (2005); Animal Legal Defense Fund (n.d.[a]).

[35] Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005).

[36] Flynn (2001); Munro (1999).

[37] Allan (2010); Arluke et al. (2002); Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005); Fleury (2007); Nathanson (2009); Patronek (2008).

[38] Pierpoint and Maher (2010); Patterson-Kane and Piper (2009); McPhedran (2009); Hackett and Uprichard (2007); Beirne (2004); Arluke (2006); Belle (2001); Duncan and Miller (2002).

[39] Ascione (2005); Faver and Strand (2003).

[40] CGilbreath (2008); Humane Society of the United States (1999).

[41] Munro (1999); Lockwood (2008).

[42] Carlisle-Frank and Flanagan (2006).

[43] Patronek, Loar, and Nathanson (2006).

[44] Boatfield and Vallongo (1999); Linkage Project (2010).

[45] Nathanson (2009).

[46] Schlueter (1999); Lockwood (1989).

[47] Nathanson (2009).

[48] Linkage Project (2010).

[49] Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force (2010).

[50] Pierpoint and Maher (2010).

[51] Munro and Thrusfield (2001); Munro (1999); Arkow, Boyden, and Patterson-Kane (2011).

[52] Arkow, Boyden, and Patterson-Kane (2011).

[53] Arluke (2006); Arluke, Frost, Steketee, and Patronek (2002).

[54] American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (2010).

[55] Garrett (2008).

[56] Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force (2010); Frasch (2008); Garrett (2008); Schlueter (2008).

[57] Lockwood (2006); Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force (2010).

[58] American Humane Association (1995).

[59] Pierpoint and Maher (2010); Ascione (2001); Duncan, Thomas, and Miller (2005); Duncan and Miller (2002).

[60] New Mexico Department of Public Safety (2008).

[61] Siebert (2010); Otto (2005).

[62] Tischler (1999); Lockwood (2008); Frasch (2008); Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force (2010).

[63] Lockwood (2006); Pierpoint and Maher (2010).

[64] Belle (2001); Baltimore Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force (2010).

[65] Patronek (1999); Patronek, Loar, and Nathanson (2006); Nathanson (2009); Allan (2004).

[66] Allan (2004).

[67] Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005); Allen (2004).

[68] Allen (2004).

[69] Frasch (2008); Berry, Patronek, and Lockwood (2005); Livingston (2001).

[70] Frasch (2008).

[71] Lockwood (2006).

[72] Kogan et al. (2004); Gilbreath (2008); Ascione (2000).


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