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Animal Cruelty Laws: Know the Basics

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Animal cruelty laws in the United States exist at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal laws apply in all states, but most laws that protect animals are implemented at the state level. Each state has its own animal cruelty laws, with some having stricter and more comprehensive laws than others. 

So, what rights do animals have in the US? Let’s take a look at two of the country’s main federal animal cruelty laws and some common laws across different states. Note that this article will focus on laws that cover dogs, cats, and other domestic pets and small animals. For information on laws that protect farm animals and wildlife, visit the ASPCA and US Fish & Wildlife Service websites. Additionally, this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.


Federal animal cruelty laws

Social reform movements in the 19th century brought about the expansion of animal protectionism in America. Abolitionists and temperance activists considered animal welfare as a barometer for human morality, and in 1873, the country’s first federal animal welfare law was enacted. Known as the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, it required transporters of certain farm animals to stop every 28 hours to provide them with food, water, and rest.

Today, there are a handful of federal animal protection laws, which include:

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is one of the primary federal animal protection laws in the United States. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, it originally focused on preventing the theft of pet dogs and cats that were being sold to research and testing facilities. Since then, several amendments have been made to the law, which now also covers animals kept captive in zoos and aquariums and those used in animal fights, among others.

Enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), the Animal Welfare Act addresses the treatment of certain animals used for commercial purposes. Animal dealers, transporters, exhibitors, and research facilities must meet basic welfare standards, register with APHIS, and in some cases, obtain a license to operate. Only dealers that are considered wholesale are required to abide by the act, however, so retail pet stores and smaller scale puppy mills are not subject to its regulations. Violations of the Animal Welfare Act can result in fines and license suspension or revocation. 

The PACT Act of 2019

Signed into law by President Donald J. Trump on November 25, 2019, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act makes it unlawful for any person to engage in animal crushing, create animal crush videos, and distribute these videos within and outside the United States. 

Crushing is a form of animal cruelty where an animal is “purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.” The PACT Act does not apply to “customary and normal” veterinary and agricultural practices, the slaughter of animals for food, hunting, and medical or scientific research. Violators of the PACT Act can face severe fines and/or up to seven years in prison.


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Animal cruelty laws by state

Every US state has animal cruelty laws, but they vary widely across the country. Even between states that have similar laws, their definition and enforcement can be drastically different. Generally, states in New England, East North Central, and the West Coast have stricter animal protection laws than those in the West and Southeast. For more information, see Animal Legal Defense Fund’s 2021 US State Animal Protection Laws Rankings.

Common laws

  • The majority of states have laws that require guardians to provide shelter for their animals, although the specifics vary greatly from state to state. For example, 15 states have detailed requirements for most animals, while 9 states require “necessary” or “proper” shelter but do not define what it means. (All states except KY, NE, and NM)

  • Most states have laws that criminalize the sexual assault of animals, with some states having stronger laws than others. Depending on the state, a first offense can be categorized as either a misdemeanor or a felony. (All states except NM and WV)

  • Several states have laws that prohibit leaving animals in an unattended vehicle. Of these 31 states, 14 of them also have Good Samaritan laws that allow civilians to rescue a distressed animal from a parked car. (AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, IL, IN, KS, LA, MD, ME, MA, MN, NV, NH, NJ, NY, NC, ND, OH, OR, PA, RI, SD, TN, VT, VA, WA, WV, and WI)

  • Almost half of all states require veterinarians to report suspected animal cruelty. (AL, AZ, CA, CO, HI, IL, KS, MD, ME, MA, MN, MO, NE, NY, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, VA, WV, and WI) 

  • Dogfighting is a felony not only under federal law, but also in all 50 states. 

States with the strongest animal cruelty laws

  • Maine. Maine has very comprehensive animal neglect laws and is the second state in the country to pass a Courtroom Animal Advocate Program (CAAP) law, which gives animals a voice in the courtroom. Maine has both civil and criminal animal cruelty laws; penalties include fines, imprisonment, and other sanctions.  

  • Illinois. Illinois has felony penalties for animal cruelty, abandonment, neglect, fighting, and sexual assault. Courts may order forfeiture or restriction on future possession of animals upon conviction, and pets are included in protective orders.

  • Oregon. In Oregon, animal fighting is a predicate offense under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and civilians have civil immunity for rescuing animals locked in unattended vehicles. Oregon also has increased penalties for repeat animal abusers and cases involving multiple animals.

  • Colorado. Colorado has felony penalties for animal cruelty, neglect, fighting, and abandonment. Convicted offenders are required to undergo mental health evaluation/treatment, with emphasis on addressing the root causes of the offense. 

  • Rhode Island. Rhode Island has a full range of statutory protections for neglect, cruelty, abandonment, fighting, and sexual assault of animals. Penalties include fines, imprisonment, treble civil damages (if applicable), and community service.


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The state of animal cruelty laws in 2022

The law is always evolving and new animal cruelty laws continue to be enacted around the country. Recent developments include:

  • Guam, Hawaii, and Wyoming criminalizing the sexual assault of animals for the first time.

  • Texas making it illegal to chain up dogs outside without shelter and water. 

  • Florida and Ohio requiring social service workers to report suspected animal cruelty.

  • Maryland requiring new humane and animal control officers to complete at least 80 hours of education and training. 

  • The reintroduction of the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act in Congress to  strengthen the USDA's licensing process for animal dealers and exhibitors.

In the US, animals are protected by federal, state, and local animal cruelty laws. New laws continue to be implemented in order to provide better protection for dogs, cats, and other animals. 

To learn more about animal cruelty laws in America, visit:


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