Key Facts About Animal Abuse

How is animal abuse different from animal cruelty?

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Within the animal protection movement, the term "animal abuse" is used to describe any use or treatment of animals that seems unnecessarily cruel, regardless of whether the act is against the law. The term "animal cruelty" is sometimes used interchangeably with "animal abuse," but "animal cruelty" is also a legal term that describes acts of animal abuse that are against the law. The state laws that protect animals from abuse are referred to as "animal cruelty statutes."

Abuse Standards for Farm Animals

The term "animal abuse" can also describe violent or neglectful actions against pets or wildlife. In cases of wildlife or pets, these animals are more likely to be protected or are better protected than farmed animals under the law. If cats, dogs or wild animals were treated the same as cows, pigs, and chickens in factory farms, the people involved would likely be convicted of animal cruelty.

Animal advocates consider factory farming practices like debeaking, the use of veal crates or tail docking to be animal abuse, but these practices are legal almost everywhere. While many people would call these practices "cruel," they do not constitute animal cruelty under the law in most jurisdictions but fit the term "animal abuse" in many people's minds.

Animal rights activists oppose not only animal abuse and animal cruelty, but any use of animals. For animal rights activists, the issue is not about abuse or cruelty; it's about domination and oppression, no matter how well the animals are treated, no matter how big the cages are, and no matter how much anesthesia they are given before painful procedures.

Laws Against Animal Cruelty

The legal definition of "animal cruelty" varies from state to state, as do the penalties and punishments. Most states have exemptions for wildlife, animals in laboratories, and common agricultural practices, such as debeaking or castration. Some states exempt rodeos, zoos, circuses and pest control. Others may have separate laws banning practices like cockfighting, dogfighting, or horse slaughter.

If someone is found guilty of animal cruelty, most states provide for the seizure of the animals and reimbursement for expenses for the animals' care. Some allow counseling or community service as part of the sentencing, and about half have felony penalties.

Federal Tracking of Animal Cruelty

Although there are no federal statutes against animal abuse or animal cruelty, the FBI tracks and collects information about acts of animal cruelty from participating law enforcement agencies across the country. These can include neglect, torture, organized abuse and even sexual abuse of animals. The FBI used to include acts of animal cruelty into an "all other offenses" category, which did not give much insight into the nature and frequency of such acts. 

The FBI's motivation for tracking acts of animal cruelty stems from the belief that many who practice such behavior may also be abusing children or other people. Many high-profile serial killers began their violent acts by harming or killing animals, according to law enforcement.