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Animal Cruelty Facts: Understanding the Law and the Link

Fact Sheet| Anti-Cruelty, Cats and Wildlife, Cats and the Law
Facts you should know:
  • Anti-cruelty laws exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia
  • Anti-cruelty laws differ on a state-by-state basis
  • All cats should be protected under anti-cruelty laws, regardless of ownership
  • There is a link between violence to animals and violence to people
  • Alley Cat Allies advocates for stronger anti-cruelty laws and enforcement of existing laws

Anti-cruelty laws exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and all include felony provisions. Yet far too often, these laws don’t provide penalties that are consistent with the severity of the crime, or the justice system fails to enforce them.

It’s important to remember that anti-cruelty laws exist for a reason: animal cruelty offenders are a threat to the health and safety of all members of our communities. Violence against animals is abhorrent in and of itself, and the link between violence against animals and violence against people is well understood.

For the sake of both animals and humans, animal cruelty is unacceptable and cannot be ignored.

Alley Cat Allies stands against all acts of cruelty to cats. Learn more about our work at

Animal Cruelty and the Law

Anti-cruelty laws are crucial and must protect every cat, whether the cat lives indoors or is a community cat (an unowned cat who lives outdoors, also called stray or feral). When those laws are broken, justice must be pursued.

It seems simple, but many states lack laws that fully protect cats or the enforcement of existing laws.

While every state has animal protection laws that prohibit the most egregious acts of violence against dogs and cats, most laws need to be strengthened to create harsher penalties and expanded to apply to any act of cruelty against an animal. Laws that are in place must also be better enforced by local officials to be effective. In some cases, enforcement does not happen at all.

That is why Alley Cat Allies advocates for stronger anti-cruelty laws and enforcement policies in every community.

What’s the Law?

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws criminalizing acts of cruelty toward animals and include felony animal cruelty provisions. While all of these laws cover cats, either directly or through the definition of “animal” in the statute, certain states have increased protections and penalties for pet cats versus unowned cats. Some states do not make it clear that community cats are protected by the law the way pet cats are. That needs to change.

For example, some states expressly criminalize killing under their animal cruelty laws, while others do not. Some states specifically criminalize the killing of animals within the context of three conditions: the mental state of the actor (was the killing caused by negligence? Was it intentional? Was it malicious?), the manner of the animal’s death (did this form of death cause unusual or extensive suffering?), or the purpose for which the animal was killed (some laws allow for extermination of unowned animals in specific circumstances, whereas the same conduct against a pet is a crime).

All states have exemptions to their anti-cruelty laws which often apply to certain professions (veterinarians, animal control officers, persons involved in population control, animal shelters, humane societies, or similar institutions).Exemptions also apply to accepted practices of activities such as animal slaughter, research, hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, and rodeos, or to protect a human or a human’s property.

What about Federal Animal Cruelty Laws?

Many people wonder if animal cruelty is a federal felony. In 2019 the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act or PACT Act was signed into law, making certain acts of animal cruelty a federal crime. Violating the PACT Act is punishable by a prison term up to seven years, a fine, or both.

Defining Animal Cruelty

It is important to remember that legal definitions of “cruelty” or “cruel killing” do not always match our own ideas. State laws often do not characterize a quick or “humane” death as animal cruelty, even in cases that seem gruesome and outrageous to us. While each anti-cruelty law characterizes animal cruelty differently, the acts that are typically included are killing, injuring, torturing, neglecting, overworking, and abandoning an animal.

  • Killing an animal as an act of cruelty may seem self-explanatory, but there are numerous exceptions. For example, millions of animals are killed in animal shelters each year. Though what these shelters do is not considered animal cruelty under the law, Alley Cat Allies does not support the killing of animals in any circumstance unless they are euthanized because they are terminally ill or untreatably injured. Learn more about the difference between euthanasia and killing at
  • Injuring an animal may also appear self-explanatory, but such acts can be hard to investigate. Oftentimes, an illegal injury to an animal is only discovered by a veterinarian who can tell the difference between an accidental and intentional wound.
  • Definitions of torture differ significantly. For example, in Texas, torture includes any act that causes unjustifiable pain or suffering, while in Utah, torture means intentionally causing or inflicting extreme physical pain to an animal in an especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, or exceptionally depraved manner. Utah’s specific standards for what constitutes ‘torture’ make it harder both to prove that torture of an animal occurred and to punish the perpetrator.
  • The definition of neglect in anti-cruelty laws varies. Typically neglect is when a person who owns or has custody of an animal fails to provide adequate care for the animal. Anti-cruelty law has a list of neglectful acts that are related to animal restraint, veterinary care, keeping animals outside, and providing food or drink.
  • Overworking animalsalso referred to as overdriving or overloadingtypically refers to the abuse of and lack of care provided to working animals. When the first anti-cruelty law was passed in 1866, overworking horses used for transportation was a major concern of animal advocates.
  • Abandonment generally refers to an owner or custodian leaving the animal without providing for the animal’s proper care or without making reasonable arrangements for custody with another person. The purpose is to prohibit people from putting their pets outdoors permanently when the pets are accustomed to living with and being cared for by people indoors. Learn more about why TNR does not constitute animal abandonment.

Oftentimes, regardless of how the law is written, a cat’s status as owned or unowned can wrongly determine how seriously a cruelty case is taken, and how it is investigated and prosecuted (or if it is at all). That is why Alley Cat Allies advocates for all cats to be equally valued and protected under animal cruelty laws, whether they live indoors with people or are unowned community cats who live outdoors.

Finding Your State’s Anti-Cruelty Laws

Since the United States’ anti-cruelty laws vary by state, we recommend that you research your state’s specific anti-cruelty laws so you have a better understanding of how animals are protected where you live. There may also be local laws that, directly or indirectly, have a negative impact on the protection and humane treatment of cats. In these cases, compassionate people like you need to advocate to change or repeal them.

To locate your local anti-cruelty laws, check out our Cats and the Law: Finding and Understanding Your Laws resource at

Violence Has Many Victims

Society must remain vigilant against every act of violence inflicted on any victim. Animal cruelty should always be investigated, prosecuted, and penalized to the fullest extent of the law. Anti-cruelty laws are among many types of laws designed to protect society from violent people. In fact, anti-cruelty laws, which were first enacted in the late 1800s and established to protect animals from human violence regardless of ownership, led to the creation of child abuse laws and then, in the 20th century, elder abuse laws.

Unfortunately, even in states with robust anti-cruelty laws, enforcement remains the largest obstacle to reducing animal cruelty. Police officers and prosecutors sometimes fail to recognize that animal cruelty is a serious crime that negatively impacts the larger community. Even those who want to punish offenders may face a lack of evidence to pursue charges.

The Link Between Violence Against Animals and Violence Against People

Years of extensive scientific research reveals the link between violence toward animals and violence toward humans—specifically children, domestic partners, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals.

For example, according to Frank R. Ascione’s report for the U.S. Department of Justice, “Animal Abuse and Youth Violence,” animal abuse may be a result of childhood experiences in nearly two in three violent adult offenders. There is also evidence to suggest that some animal cruelty offenders are extending the pattern of violence they see as children. As explained in Dr. Randall Lockwood’s paper, “Cruelty Towards Cats: Changing Perspectives,” those who grow up in a household where animals are abused feel safe and in control “by inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others.”

There are also studies of domestic violence cases that have shown a correlation between violence against spouses or partners and violence against pets. Offenders may abuse a partner’s pet to threaten or control them or inflict violence on both victims at the same time. For example, in a six-year study conducted in 11 U.S. metropolitan cities, pet abuse is found to be one of four predictors of domestic partner violence. Furthermore, in a national survey of U.S. shelters for victims of domestic violence and child abuse, 85 percent of women and 63 percent of children who came to the shelter reported incidents of animal abuse in their homes.

To learn more about the link between cruelty to animals and other forms of violence, please visit the National Link Coalition’s website at

What You Can Do to Stop Animal Cruelty

Animal cruelty offenders are a threat to the health and safety of all members of our communities. For the sake of both people and animals, it is critical that we take every instance of animal cruelty seriously.

Learn how to join Alley Cat Allies in advocating for stronger anti-cruelty laws, and how to approach cases of animal cruelty in your community or that you witness, at