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Animal Neglect

Frequently asked questions

The Humane Society of the United States

1.What is criminal animal neglect?

Animal neglect situations are those in which the animal's caretaker or owner fails to provide food, water, shelter, or veterinary care sufficient for survival. It can be either deliberate or unintentional, but either way, the animal suffers terribly. Extended periods of neglect can lead to seriously compromised health or even death. Animal control agencies nationwide report that animal neglect cases are the most common calls to which they respond.

2. How does it cause animal suffering?

The pain of an animal who lingers with untreated illness or wounds, or without nourishment or shelter, can be tremendous—sometimes even more so than those who are victims of directly inflicted violence, because their suffering is so prolonged. Animals who starve to death experience a myriad of painful symptoms throughout each stage of their physical deterioration. An initial loss of body fat is followed by muscle loss and atrophy and, ultimately, organ failure. In long-term starvation, degeneration of the liver, cardiac changes, anemia, and skin lesions may develop.

An animal without proper shelter can also quickly succumb to extreme heat or cold. During extremely cold spells or hot periods, it is not uncommon for animal control officers to find companion animals—often chained dogs—literally frozen to the ground or dead from heat prostration because of lack of proper shelter from the elements. Often these animals perish only feet away from the homes in which their caretakers live.

Dogs who are continually chained are also neglect victims, even if it may not be illegal in that particular jurisdiction. Because dogs are social pack animals, isolating them at the end of a chain causes them anguish that can drive them to aggression, neuroses, and self-mutilation behaviors. Chained dogs are also more likely to be victims of starvation, because their confinement renders them particularly helpless.

3. Are there other concerns?

Yes. Law enforcement officials responding to cases of animal neglect often find various forms of abusive behavior [PDF] like child neglect and/or elder abuse in the same household. This is particularly true in cases of animal hoarding, where a person takes in far too many animals than can be cared for and becomes virtually blind to their suffering. Cats are the most common animal-hoarding victims.

Because people who are insensitive to the suffering of animals are more likely to be unresponsive to the needs of dependent people in their household (and vice versa), several states have "cross-reporting" laws. Cross-reporting laws are those in which humane officers and/or veterinarians are required to report possible elder and/or child abuse. Also, there can be informal agreements between social welfare agencies where agents are encouraged to report suspected animal cruelty and neglect.

Anecdotally, in cases of severe animal neglect at a residence, mental illness and/or drug abuse may be implicated in the situation as well.

4. Are there laws against animal neglect?

Yes. Although many people do not recognize animal neglect as illegal animal abuse, many states have a provision specifically addressing animal neglect written into their animal cruelty laws; others allow animal neglect to be prosecuted under the general cruelty statute prohibiting acts of "torture" against an animal. Thirteen states have laws limiting the continuous chaining of dogs.

Body condition scoring systems for cattle and horses have long been in place to help assess the condition of livestock, and in recent years scoring systems for dogs (ranging from ideal to emaciated) have been developed to help animal cruelty investigators and veterinarians assess cases of animal neglect.

A major shortcoming of many animal neglect laws is their failure to address all animal species. For instance, many statutes specifically apply only to dogs and cats or "companion animals" and exclude those considered "farm animals" or trapped wildlife. 

5. Can animal neglect be prosecuted as a felony offense?

Prosecutors in some states have the option to charge an egregious case of animal neglect as a felony when the neglect was considered to have fallen under the definition of "torture," or was considered intentional (although intent has been notoriously difficult to prove in court.) Still, felony convictions have been obtained in neglect cases resulting in the animals' deaths.

There are several compelling reasons for treating animal neglect as a serious crime, including the extreme suffering involved and its implications for the welfare of other animals and people who may rely upon the abuser.

Overly lenient penalties (small fines, probation, or suspended sentences) that accompany misdemeanor convictions are problematic because they leave the door open for the offenders to repeat their abuse with other animals and/or people in their care.

6. What can I do to help stop animal neglect?

Be aware of the signs of animal neglect—including chained dogs, animal hoarding, or abandoned pets—and be willing to make a report to your local animal control agency. If your town or city does not have a local animal control, you can make a report to the sheriff or other law enforcement agency. (You may remain anonymous when filing a report.)

Some neglect cases, when the owners' lack of resources and/or knowledge is the problem, can be resolved simply by educating the owner and working with them  to adjust their animal's living conditions. For example, some communities have fence building projects for the owners of chained dogs who may not have enough money to build a fence. (This approach is usually more effective if you're well acquainted with or are on positive terms already with the person in question.) The HSUS also has free pamphlets on animal neglect and chaining that you can leave at doorsteps or pass out in your community.

In most cases, the education and monitoring of the neglect situation is best left to your community's law enforcement professionals.

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