What is Animal Cruelty?

Legal Definition of Animal Cruelty Versus Common Interpretation

Animal Rights Protestors March Through London
Getty Images

The term "animal cruelty" gets thrown around a lot, but an animal activist's definition of animal cruelty may be very different from that of a hunter, a vivisector or a farmer. There is also a legal definition of "animal cruelty" that varies by state in the U.S., to confuse things further.

Essentially, though, animal cruelty boils down to inhumane acts against animals of all walks of life, including starving domesticated pets, torturing any creatures and excessive killing of animals for sport.

Animal Cruelty Law in the United States

In the United States, there is no federal animal cruelty law. While some federal laws, like the Animal Welfare Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act restrict when or how certain animals in certain situations may be harmed or killed, these federal laws do not cover the more typical case, such as the person who intentionally kills the neighbor's dog.

Every state has an animal cruelty statute, and some offer stronger protections than others. Hence, the legal definition of "animal cruelty" will vary according to which state you are in, and some places have very large exemptions. For example, most states have exemptions for wildlife, animals in laboratories, and common agricultural practices, such as debeaking or castration. Some states exempt rodeos, zoos, circuses and pest control.

However, some states may also have separate laws banning practices like cock fighting, dog fighting or horse slaughter — activities observed as inhumane by the majority of Americans.

Where the legal definition is lacking, at least for animal rights activists, is in protecting all creatures from unnecessary suffering at the hands of mankind. 

In any case, if someone is found guilty of animal cruelty, penalties also vary by state. Most states provide for the seizure of the animal victims and reimbursement for expenses for the animals' care, and while some allow counseling or community service as part of the sentencing, twenty-three states have felony penalties of over a year in prison for animal cruelty.

For more information, the Animal Legal and Historic Center provides an excellent, detailed overview of animal cruelty statutes in the U.S. To find your state's animal cruelty statute, go to the Center's site and choose your state from the drop-down menu on the left.

The Common Understanding

Animal cruelty cases make headlines around the country every day, whether it's the person who kills the neighbor's cat, the hoarder of sick and dying animals, or the family whose starving, freezing dog is tied up outside in the middle of winter. These acts would likely constitute animal cruelty under any state's animal cruelty statute, and would also fit with the public's common understanding of the term.

However, when it comes to animals other than cats and dogs, peoples' concept of the term "animal cruelty" varies greatly. Most animal activists would say that traditional agricultural practices such as debeaking, tail docking, castration and confinement on factory farms are animal cruelty. Although some people do agree, as evidenced by the passage of Prop 2 in California, factory farmers and most other states' animal cruelty laws haven't yet adopted these same values.

While some might base their definition of "animal cruelty" on how much the animal suffers or feels pain during death, the amount of suffering is not relevant for animal rights activists because the animals are deprived of their right to live and exist free of human use and abuse.

Some may also base their definition on which type of animal is involved or how intelligent they perceive that animal to be. The slaughter of dogs, horses or whales for meat may be the epitome of animal cruelty to some, while the killing of cows, pigs and chickens is acceptable to those same individuals. Similarly, to some, the killing of animals for fur or cosmetics testing may constitute unacceptable animal cruelty while the killing of animals for food is acceptable.

Among the general public, the more culturally beloved the animal is and the more unusual the harm is, the more likely they are to be outraged and label the harm to that animal as "animal cruelty." To animal activists, a much wider range of harms is called "animal cruelty." Animal rights activists would argue that cruelty is cruelty, regardless of how common or legal the harm is.