Animal cruelty, also known as animal abuse, is legally defined as any act of violence or neglect that inflicts suffering or death on an animal. Animal cruelty laws typically extend only to tame or domestic animals, such as house pets, horses, and draught or other working animals. Lawful hunting or trapping of wild game, research—such as vivisection or animal testing—and breeding or raising livestock can also be subjected to animal cruelty laws if unnecessary pain is being inflicted upon an animal.
Acts of cruelty may fall into one of two categories: active and passive. Active cruelty is an intentional act aimed at inflicting injury or death. Persons who commit active forms of cruelty or abuse may be charged according to criminal laws, resulting in fines or jail time. Neglect—failing to act in ways that preserve the well-being of an animal—is an example of passive cruelty. Willful neglect of animals may also be prosecuted according to animal cruelty laws, although certain cases have been found to stem from ignorance rather than criminal negligence.
Types of Abuse
Forms of active, or intentional, abuse include:
- torture, beating, mutilation, poisoning, or shooting
- confinement, especially in unhealthy enclosures lacking fresh air, clean water, food, or sanitation
- blood sport, such as cockfighting, bullfighting, and certain types of hunting
Passive, or neglectful, forms of abuse include:
- failing to provide access to food, water, shelter, or sanitary conditions
- failing to provide adequate shelter from harmful elements, such as cold, heat, rain, or snow
- lack of, or improper, medical care and treatment
- abandonment or neglect
Apart from observable acts of active animal abuse such as beating and mutilation, active abuse also occurs in spaces such as puppy mills, which are large-scale breeding facilities driven by profit. These facilities are often overcrowded and unsanitary and do not provide veterinary care or adequate nutrition to the breeding dogs and their offspring.
Factory farms also qualify as places of active animal cruelty when they fail to meet federal animal welfare regulations. The majority of industrial farming practices favor efficiency over animal welfare. Factory farm animals routinely experience abuse and neglect in the form of overcrowding, confinement, lack of fresh air, abusive handling by workers, and physical alterations such as tail-docking without sedation.
Animals used for fighting, such as roosters and pit bulls, often experience severe physical injury, and their owners may be subject to animal cruelty laws, which vary by state and country. In addition to threatening the animal’s own health, animal fighting is often associated with other criminal activities and exposes the animals to other forms of abuse, such as torture, beating, and death.
Other blood sports, such as cockfighting and bullfighting, remain legal in parts of Europe and Latin America, although they are tightly regulated. Campaigns by animal rights activists have led to the banning of bullfighting in certain cities; television broadcasts of bullfights have also been cancelled in countries such as Spain and Portugal. Fox hunting remains legal and fairly popular in the United Kingdom especially. The practice has been officially banned in most countries, although fox hunts continue, albeit in a highly modified form.
Some animal welfare activists argue that animals also suffer needlessly when used as subjects for product testing, education, and biomedical research. The subject is controversial, however; without disputing the potential pain and suffering that occurs, others have countered that such testing and research is necessary to make products safe for human consumption or to advance medical knowledge and the treatment of human diseases. Although no laws prohibit animal testing or using them in research, the practice is strictly regulated. Various companies and research institutions have been targeted by animal rights activists for their inhumane treatment of animal subjects.
Passive animal cruelty primarily deals with the failure of an individual to care for an animal. Animal hoarding—keeping abnormally large numbers of animals in a confined space—is an example of passive abuse and often results in suffering through malnutrition, starvation, and disease. Hoarders are seldom able to provide needed care for so many animals and are typically unable or unwilling to recognize the cruelty they inflict.
Perpetrators of Cruelty
Animal abuse is a behavior commonly associated with violent offenders. Certain types of animal abuse, such as torture, beating, and hoarding, may stem from personality or conduct disorders. The American Psychiatric Association considers animal cruelty to be an indicator of conduct disorder, a mental disorder in children and adolescents characterized by behavioral and emotional problems that make it difficult for the individual to behave in socially acceptable ways. Actively beating an animal, such as a household pet, may lead to other forms of abuse directed primarily at other human beings. The psychology of animal hoarding is not well understood, but it has been associated with other social and personality disorders.
Views and laws on animal cruelty or abuse vary greatly across different cultures. In many parts of the world, domestic animals are regarded primarily as property, and anti-cruelty laws may be nonexistent or limited to preventing only unnecessary acts of cruelty and abuse. At the opposite end, many people believe animals should be afforded the same moral rights and given the same legal protections as humans.
Activism and Prevention
In Victorian England, many evangelical humanitarians organized to fight the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. In 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was formed in London, becoming the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in 1840. Among its founders was British politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce (1759–1833), who became famous for his efforts to abolish slavery in Great Britain. Its American counterpart, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was founded in 1866 in New York by Henry Bergh (1813–1888), who was also instrumental in the formation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The ASPCA was charged with enforcing one of the first anti-cruelty laws passed by the New York state legislature. In 1875, Irish writer Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904) founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV), from which the National Anti-vivisection Society and Animal Defenders International were created. These organizations actively oppose the use of animals, particularly primates, for use in biomedical research and testing.
Many people and organizations insist that all animals, domestic or otherwise, should be treated with compassion and respect. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has focused its attention on animal testing by cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, the use of animals or animal products for fashion or entertainment, and reducing the suffering of animals used for meat and poultry products. In addition to the protection of animals, organizations such as PETA also attempt to raise public awareness of abusive practices and to promote the basic moral rights of animals.
Many animal rights advocates also feel that certain forms of hunting, breeding, racing, and other activities by humans also constitutes cruel or inhumane treatment. With hunting, opponents claim the activity causes extreme fear, pain, and suffering in animals. Sport hunting has also led to the extinction of some animal species around the world. As a result, various organizations have formed to protect specific groups or species of animals from these abuses, such as the Wolf Preservation Foundation, the Greyhound Protection League, the International Primate Protection League, and Defenders of Wildlife.
Numerous laws aimed at eliminating animal cruelty have been enacted over time. Notable among them is the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act. Enacted in 2019, PACT made some of the most serious forms of animal cruelty a federal crime. This included crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, impaling, and sexual exploitation. PACT increases funding to pursue suspects across state lines. Those convicted face felonies, large fines, and up to seven years in prison.