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5 Things You Can Do to Help End Animal Abuse

In honor of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, we walk you through how to spot crimes against dogs and do something about it.

Lisa Plummer Savas  |  May 7th 2015


It’s incredibly hard for most pet parents to understand why people would intentionally hurt their own dogs. Why would people go out of their way to inflict pain on their pets or allow suffering through negligence? Although conditions for companion animals have greatly improved over the last few decades, especially in Western societies, there are still many people who view dogs the old-fashioned way: as property. These individuals typically don’t recognize pets as sentient beings capable of having emotions, only as objects they have the right to do with as they wish. And sometimes, that includes acts of cruelty.

This very sick puppy was rescued from a hoarding case in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy HSUS)

That’s where dog lovers can make a difference, by doing their part to make sure abusers don’t get away with these crimes. So in honor of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, we’ll walk you through how to recognize animal cruelty and do something about it.

Understand your local laws

Animal cruelty laws can vary from state to state (all 50 states have them), and every city or county has different ordinances that spell out what constitutes illegal treatment of a dog. So it’s important to understand what is or isn’t considered prosecutable animal cruelty in your community.

For example, most loving pet parents would never dream of leaving their beloved dog outside on a tether 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with little or no socialization, but in many cities and counties throughout the U.S., it’s still legal to do just that. However, if that tethered animal is emaciated and has no food, water, or shelter, chances are the owner is in violation and can be cited for cruelty.

Dog on chain by Shutterstock

Learn the signs of animal neglect and abuse

According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal cruelty comes in two forms: direct violence and neglect. While direct violence is the most obvious, neglect is the most common. In fact, tons of dogs die from neglect every year, right under the noses of the people in their communities. That’s why it’s important to be able to identify both kinds of animal cruelty.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Animals left outside in extreme weather with no shelter
  • Poor living conditions, including filth and dangerous objects near the animal
  • Lack of food and water
  • Emaciated animals
  • Too many animals living on one property or animal hoarding
  • Wounds on an animal’s body or patches of missing hair
  • Excessive amounts of animals kept in small spaces
  • Untreated injuries or illnesses
  • Animal abandonment
  • Prolonged or excessive barking or howling
  • Acts of violence against animals

This adult dog was rescued from the same hoarding case in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy HSUS)

Take action against animal cruelty

So you suspect a dog is being neglected or have observed the dog being abused — now what? According to Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services in Atlanta, there are some key steps to follow:

Pick up the phone — If it’s an emergency situation, call 911. Otherwise, call your local animal control or humane organization as soon as possible. If you don’t have either in your area, call the police and report the situation. Relay exactly what you saw, give plenty of details, and leave your contact information. You can ask to remain anonymous, but do give dispatch a number it can call in case the investigating officer needs to ask you any questions, Hudson says.

Confront the perpetrator if it’s safe — If you feel comfortable, speak to the person one-on-one or have somebody else to go with you, just in case.

“Everybody has to use their own judgment and be safe, but ultimately, most cases are best left to law enforcement,” Hudson advises.

This pup rescued from the hoarding case in North Carolina appears to have never had his nails trimmed. (Photo courtesy HSUS)

Document the details — Again, if it’s safe, take pictures and/or video of the situation and plenty of notes. When it comes to prosecuting animal cruelty, a picture really is worth a thousand words and can mean the difference between an abuser getting away with the crime and an actual conviction.

“Taking pictures and video absolutely helps,” Hudson says. “With those cruelty cases that have photos, it’s very hard for the judge to say ‘not guilty.”

Be persistent and follow-up — If your local animal control or police department isn’t being responsive, call back and ask to speak to a supervisor. It’s important to keep in mind that most law enforcement agencies operate with limited personnel and resources and that most do their best to conduct timely and efficient investigations. However, if after numerous calls you’re still not getting a response, consider calling your local news station –- there’s nothing like publicity to encourage law enforcement to fix a problem!

Be prepared to testify in court

So an animal control officer has gone to the property to check on the dog — what happens next?

Typically, an officer will investigate your complaint to see if any cruelty laws have been violated. If a violation has occurred, the officer may speak with the owner, issue a citation, and give the person a chance to correct the problem. If the neglect or abuse is extreme, however, animal control will likely remove the dog and take the dog to the county shelter or humane agency for protection from further harm. The case will then be presented to the local prosecutor’s office for further evaluation and possible owner prosecution.

Gavel in courtroom by Shutterstock

Be prepared that you may be asked to testify about what you witnessed. Since dogs can’t speak for themselves, human witnesses are crucial for building strong, prosecutable cruelty cases, so if at all possible, please be willing and able to do your part, Hudson says.

“It’s so much more helpful if we can get a witness to come into court with us and say what they saw; that way we can get more prosecutions.”

You also can follow-up on the case by contacting your local government records office and requesting this information in writing, adds Hudson. Since these cases are part of the public record, you’ll be able to learn whether the case went to court, if the owner paid a fine, and whether the conviction was a misdemeanor or a felony.

Get involved in animal-cruelty prevention

You can also help crack down on animal cruelty in your community by finding out if your local animal services or humane society has a cruelty prevention program or volunteer task force you can join.

“There’s so much that can be done to prevent cruelty from happening to begin with, which is the only way we’re going to stop it,” Hudson says. “The more people we can get involved, the better it’s going to be for everybody.”

The ASPCA helped rescue more than 300 dogs as part of a multi-state, federal dog-fighting raid in 2013. As part of its efforts to prevent the cruel bloodsport, it asks animal lovers to sign its letter to the Department of Justice asking for greater prosecution of dog fighters.

So if you witness or suspect animal abuse, don’t just stand there — report it! Your call may be the only chance that dog has to find help and possibly be rescued from a miserable or life-threatening situation. Animal cruelty is a crime, and the more often abusive individuals are punished for their behavior, the less likely others will be inclined to do the same. Animals have no voice, so it is our obligation and duty to speak for them, especially when they’re being mistreated.

For great tips on how to prevent animal cruelty, check out the ASPCA’s Fight Cruelty web page.

Let’s hear from you, readers. Have you ever confronted an animal abuser or reported animal abuse? Share your experiences and tips in the comments.

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About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, she is especially focused on using her writing to spread awareness about controversial animal welfare issues, including the dog and cat meat trade in Asia and Africa. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website.