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Is Animal Neglect a Crime?

The Animal Legal Defense Fund defines animal neglect as "the failure to provide basic care required for an animal to thrive." But what do state and federal laws have to say on the matter? Just about every state has animal cruelty statutes, but do those also cover cases of intentional or unintentional neglect? Does simply chaining a dog for long periods of time constitute neglect?

Here's a look at what might constitute animal neglect under the law.

Animal Neglect Defined

As with any criminal offense, state animal cruelty statutes may vary, and whether they cover cases of neglect and how they define neglect can depend on how the statute is written. More often than not, state animal cruelty statutes define a minimum standard of care that an animal caretaker must meet, including providing adequate water, food, shelter, and veterinary care.

For instance, Alaska's animal cruelty law defines cruelty as both knowingly inflicting pain and suffering on an animal and failing to care for an animal in a way that "causes its death or severe pain or prolonged suffering." In Wyoming, anyone who "unnecessarily fails to provide it with the proper food, drink or protection from the weather, or cruelly abandons the animal, or in the case of immediate, obvious, serious illness or injury, fails to provide the animal with appropriate care" is guilty of animal cruelty.

Levels of Animal Neglect

While the majority of states prosecute animal neglect as a misdemeanor, there are cases when neglect can be charged as a felony. Generally speaking, felony animal neglect offenses are reserved for extreme cases or intentional acts. For instance, the District of Columbia classifies cruelty to animals "resulting in serious bodily injury or death" as a felony, and in South Carolina, whoever "tortures, torments, needlessly mutilates, cruelly kills, or inflicts excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering upon any animal or by omission or commission causes the acts to be done" can be charged with a felony.

Cases of animal neglect are often associated with child neglect and domestic or elder abuse, so if you are aware of an animal being neglected or abused you should report it immediately. And if you've been charged with animal neglect, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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