Animal cruelty and neglect: part 1–recognition, reporting and resources (Proceedings)


A range of behaviors harmful to animals may be defined as abuse. This includes both intentional and unintentional harm or neglect. Animal cruelty statutes exist in all 50 states, but legal definitions of cruelty vary.

What is animal cruelty?

A range of behaviors harmful to animals may be defined as abuse. This includes both intentional and unintentional harm or neglect. Animal cruelty statutes exist in all 50 states, but legal definitions of cruelty vary. Although there are federal animal welfare statutes, there is no federal animal cruelty law per se. It is worth reviewing animal cruelty laws in whatever state you find yourself practicing. A listing of some state animal cruelty laws can be found at, although this website may not include all related laws. Local police, humane or sheltering organizations may be able to provide more specific details for the laws in a given locality. In addition to unnecessary torture, suffering or death, definitions of cruelty may include failure to provide adequate food, water, or medical care, improper confinement or transportation, animal abandonment and animal fighting, and many other categories of prohibited behavior.

Signs of animal abuse

Signs suggestive of non-accidental injury include: [Munro, 2001 #435]

     • Unexplained injuries or varying explanation for the same injury by different parties or over time

     • More than one fracture of differing ages in the same animal

     • Unexplained old rib fractures

     • A history inconsistent with injury

     • A previous history of unexplained death or injury in another pet

Animal "hoarding"

Animal hoarding has been defined as:

     • More than the typical number of companion animals

     • Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death

     • Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling

Many state laws do not identify hoarding as a specific violation. Laws regarding neglect, failure to provide adequate care, food, shelter, etc. often apply in these cases. Kind-hearted veterinarians with a reputation for being sympathetic to shelters and rescue groups are likely to eventually encounter well-meaning individuals who have crossed the line into hoarding behavior.

Signs suggestive of animal hoarding include: [Irwin, 2001 #839]

     • Constantly changing parade of pets, most seen only once

     • Visits for problems not usually seen with good preventive health care

     • Rarely see the same animal for diseases of old age

     • May travel great distance to the practice, come at odd hours, and use multiple vets

     • May seek heroic and futile care for recently found animals

Additional signs that have been suggested include:

     • Bathing or perfuming animals prior to a visit

     • Bringing in a relatively presentable animal in an attempt to get medication for more severely ill animals at home

     • Unwilling or unable to say how many animals they have

     • Claiming to have just found or rescued an animal in poor condition (esp. with conditions such as muscle wasting, filthy coat more suggestive of confinement than roaming stray)

     • Interest in rescuing even more animals

Extensive information about hoarding can be found at the website for Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at

Reporting animal abuse

Liability and requirements

The AVMA has the following position statement on its website on animal cruelty reporting:

     • Animal Abuse and Animal Neglect (Oversight: AWC; EB 11/1995; revised 04/2000, 11/2009)

     • The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws, or local ordinances. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities, whether or not reporting is mandated by law. Disclosure of abuse is necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate record keeping and documentation of these cases are essential. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to educate clients regarding humane care and treatment of animals.

Veterinarians are not generally protected from liability for other involvement with cruelty investigations. The AVMA PLIT recommends answering the following questions before proceeding with an animal control case:

     • Do you have a legal right to enter the premises?

     • Do you have a legal right to examine and/or treat the animals?

     • If you make a recommendation for euthanasia and you carry out the euthanasia, do you have legal protection?

Veterinarians can help protect themselves by becoming familiar with local laws, and veterinarians expecting to have extensive involvement with animal cruelty cases should also be familiar with laws of evidence, search and seizure and other related laws regarding citizen's rights. The AVMA PLIT recommends consulting an attorney if in doubt about the legality of any action with respect to an animal control case. It may also be helpful to have a second veterinary opinion when recommending action in a cruelty case, especially if making the recommendation for humane euthanasia.


A variety of agencies may enforce animal cruelty laws. This varies by locality, and may be different within the city limits and the unincorporated county in some areas. It's a good idea to find out who is responsible for enforcement when you move to a new practice location, and make sure contact information is available.

Resources for animal cruelty recognition and reporting

Veterinarian's role

     • Merck, Melinda, Veterinary Forensics. 2007. Blackwell publishing

     • Miller and Zawistowski (eds), Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff. Blackwell publishing.

     • Olsen P, Patronek GJ, Cappucci D. Recognizing and reporting animal abuse: a veterinarian's guide. Denver: American Humane, 1998. (This publication is available from American Humane, and can be purchased at or call 1-800-227-4645)

Laws and definitions

     • The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium

     • Listing of anti-cruelty laws by state (Rutgers University School of Law)

     • AVMA PLIT

        For questions about liability: 1-800-228-7548 or

Organizations that might be helpful

     • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (The second of the two websites above has numerous resources for veterinarians on reporting cruelty including forms you can download.)

     • Humane Society of the United States

     • American Humane

        Contact info: or 1-800-227-4645

     • National Animal Control Association

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