Animal Cruelty: What to Do if You Suspect It

Do you suspect someone of cruelty to animals? Are they abusing or neglecting an animal? This is a tricky situation that requires diplomacy.

How to approach someone who might be treating animals cruelly

If you have a rapport with the animal’s owners already, you can start by approaching them in a non-critical, compassionate way and offering help. They may just be overwhelmed and unable to give their pet proper care, or they may not even realize the care they are providing is not sufficient.

Use caution, however: If the owners feel criticized or judged, they may become defensive and refuse to work with you. Try to be empathetic, non-confrontational and open in your demeanor as well as your words.

Tell the owners how much you like the dog(s) and that you've established a relationship with them through the fence. For example, you can let them know that you sometimes give the dogs treats just because you like them so much (and not because they look like they are starving). Or you could say that you've just started an exercise program and you would love to walk the dogs since it would motivate you to exercise regularly.

In some cases that we know of, the owners have lashed out at their animals and abused them when someone has tried to intervene on the animals’ behalf. Therefore, the most important thing, if possible and if it is safe for you and your animals, is to build a relationship with the owners.

Offering help to keep the animal in the home is particularly appropriate in a case of neglect, rather than abuse, or when the dog would not easily be placed into another home. If the animal is in serious danger, however, and you feel that the only option is to contact animal control, then don't try to improve the situation beforehand. Otherwise, when animal control officers show up, everything will look fine to them.

Over time you might be able to ask the owners if they'd like your help in getting the animal adopted. Keep in mind, though, that the owners may love this animal despite their lack of quality care for their pet. You will get more of a sense of this as you build a relationship with them.

Contacting an animal control agency

In most places, an owner may be cited by animal control if food, water and shelter are not provided. Almost without exception, however, an owner will not be cited for keeping a dog on a short chain or for not providing attention. Even if you suspect physical abuse, usually no charges can be filed unless the abuse is witnessed by an officer, or the animal's life is clearly in danger.

Although contacting animal control may seem the most appropriate thing to do in many cases, there are risks involved. First, it is quite unlikely that the animal control officer will actually remove the pet from the household. A citation may incite an owner to further abuse an animal. Even if the animal is removed, there is no way to prevent the person from simply getting other pets and continuing the cycle of abuse.

If you don’t know who is responsible for cruelty investigation in your area, call a local humane organization, taxpayer-funded animal shelter or police precinct. Even if the organization doesn’t investigate cruelty in your area, the staff should be able to supply you with more information.

National organizations such as the ASPCA, the American Humane Association and the Animal Legal Defense Fund do operate some national cruelty programs. However, they usually will not get involved unless local options have been exhausted already.

Taking the animal

It is often tempting to consider taking the animal. Keep in mind that stealing an animal, no matter how bad the current situation is, is an illegal and punishable offense. Best Friends neither supports nor encourages such an act, since it can lead to the animal being confiscated and destroyed, and it also has serious legal consequences for you.

It's difficult to witness animals not having the lives we would wish for them. Some questions you might want to think about: Is the animal OK with the situation? The pet may not be allowed inside, or be involved in the owner's life, but does he or she seem to enjoy some aspects of life? What are the alternative options for the animal? If the animal is not going to be adoptable, the alternative to the current situation may be euthanasia at a local shelter. In many cases, it may be best for the animal to stay in the current home, and for you to try to improve the care he or she receives.

For more information about anti-cruelty laws

For more than three decades, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has been fighting to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. In addition to being a major force behind the emerging field of animal law, the ALDF has achieved landmark rulings affirming that animals have basic rights, including freedom from neglect and cruel experimentation. To learn more about the ALDF's nationwide programs and how you can help, visit the ALDF website.

Here are some other sources of information about animal cruelty:

  • The ASPCA has helpful information, including a listing of state-by-state cruelty laws, at aspca.org/fight-cruelty.
  • Michigan State University's College of Law also lists anti-cruelty statutes on its website.
  • The website Pet-Abuse.com has helpful tips for gathering information before reporting animal abuse.

Finally, a number of communities have passed ordinances that require that dogs not be kept on chains. While still few in number, these laws are a sign that things are looking up for chained dogs. For more information on how to encourage lawmakers to ban or restrict chaining or tethering of dogs, visit the website Dogs Deserve Better. Other useful information can be found at Unchain Your Dog.