How to Take Action – Reporting Animal Cruelty and Neglect

You just moved into a new house and notice a dog chained in the backyard with a dilapidated doghouse.  The neighbor who moved in six months ago seems to have a lot of cats peeking out from the shuttered windows, and you notice an odor coming from her house.  You see a man walking his puppy every night, yelling and kicking the poor animal.  You visit a pet store that has guinea pigs who seem to be thin and missing fur.

Reporting animal cruelty and neglect to the proper authority can mean the difference between life and death for the animal who needs help.  It’s all too true: the animal’s only voice is yours!  Here is an overview of how to proceed in the event you discover an animal in need.

Animal anti-cruelty laws

Every state has laws designed to prevent unnecessary animal suffering. Most laws, at minimum, require that companion animals (dogs, cats, other small mammals, birds, reptiles) be provided with the basics:  food, water, shelter, protection from intentional abuse).  Some laws go further and require veterinary care in the event an animal is suffering from a disease or injury.  To learn what your state’s law covers, search the Humane Society of the United States’ Web site using key words “state laws.”  Even if you think your situation will not be covered, persevere; it could be that you will be able to help an animal via your local animal protection enforcement authority.

Who enforces anti-cruelty laws?

Most counties and some incorporated cities have animal control officers or humane law enforcement officers who are employed by either humane societies or animal control divisions of local governments.  To find out where to start, try calling the animal shelter that serves your city or county.  The staff there will be able to direct you to the right office to report cruelty or neglect.   If you have no county shelter, the local sheriff’s office or any humane organization are the places to call.

What information will they need?

The more specific you can be about the situation you are reporting, the better your chances of success.  Here is a checklist for the most likely questions you will need answers for.

A description of the animals(s) in question.  Color, age, breed or mix of breeds, size, length of coat, wearing a collar or not, physical condition (thin, overweight, missing fur, limping?)

Exact address if you are calling about an owned animal.  Even if you see a man walking down the street beating a dog, unless you follow and find out where he lives, there is little chance a humane officer will be able to follow up on a complaint.

Details about your concern.  If you are calling about a dog chained in a backyard, you will be asked about other issues – do you know if the dog is being fed every day?  Is there a supply of fresh water?  Does the dog have shelter?  What does the shelter look like?  Does the dog ever get off the chain or is he ever let inside the house?  As much detail as you can give is always best.

Contact information.  If the officer has other questions, may they contact you?  ALL complaints are normally kept confidential, and most jurisdictions ask for your contact information in case they need more information.  Some jurisdictions refuse anonymous complaints.  You should feel comfortable giving your contact information and remind the call-taker for assurance that your information will remain confidential.

Willingness to testify.  If your situation involves something you witnessed, such as physical abuse or animal hoarding, the officer may need to call on you for witness testimony in order to get a search warrant or arrest warrant.  Your testimony is crucial if the officer is unable to see the animal(s) and needs a search warrant to gain access to the animal(s).

Follow-up.  It’s a good idea to follow up by calling back a week later in non-emergency cases, sooner if you see no change in a day or two and the animal is still in a life-threatening or miserable situation.  Sometimes you must be persistent to get action.  Not all jurisdictions are staffed by caring animal lovers.  Some are simply government jobs and some pressure from the concerned citizen is helpful, such as calling your local county council member or other government official. Sometimes, calling a local reporter is your last resort to action being taken in a very serious animal cruelty case.

Other types of complaints

If you have a complaint against a veterinarian, Google to find your State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in addition to reporting it to local authorities.  You can file a Veterinary Board complaint and your complaint may result in sanctions or other action.

A complaint against a breeder, boarding kennel, riding stable, dog trainer, or pet store may, in addition to being handled by local anti-cruelty authorities, be filed with the Better Business Bureau, your state agriculture department, and/or state and local business licensing authorities. Check with the Secretary of State and county or city business license offices to see if a complaint about business practices or hygiene may be filed with them.

What happens to animals confiscated in a cruelty case?

They will be transported to the local animal shelter.  In some cases, owners relinquish custody of animals and the animals can then be made available for adoption.  Some may be euthanized if they are in very bad condition or very unsocialized.  Most animal shelters try very hard to give victims of cruelty and neglect the second chance they deserve.  In some cases, animals will be held as evidence until a trial takes place.

You never know….

One local humane society has investigated complaints about overcrowding and filth in a restaurant’s fish tank.  In the same jurisdiction, a complaint about live chickens being slaughtered on site resulted in the shutdown of an illegal meat market/slaughterhouse.   Even if you think no one will take action, try!  A life is depending on it!

Other Resources:
Dogs Deserve Better  No more chains!
Humane Society of the United States
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

by Liz Marsden

Elizabeth Marsden is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Takoma Park, MD who has worked with animal protection organizations since 1982.  She owns The Logical Dog, a positive-reinforcement dog training business, and currently works in the Behavior and Training Department of the Washington Animal Rescue League in Washington, D.C.