Animal Neglect Facts

Animal neglect is the failure to provide basic care required for an animal to thrive. At first glance, such cases may seem less egregious than a single, brutal act of violent abuse, but severe neglect can mean extended periods of extreme suffering resulting in permanent injury or death. A single large-scale neglect case can affect hundreds of animals, as in cases of hoarding, puppy mills and farm neglect.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund maintains a database of criminal animal cruelty cases in the U.S. reported to our organization. In the last ten years, over 30% of cases that we have tracked involve animal neglect.

Issues common to neglect cases:

  • Animal neglect is often associated with human neglect involving a child, elder or other dependent.
  • Handling all of the animals involved in large-scale neglect cases (hoarding, puppy mills and farm neglect) requires considerable effort and expense – all animal victims must be examined, treated, catalogued as evidence and sheltered during the pendency of a court case.

State Law

Most states’ criminal animal cruelty statutes define a minimum standard of care which requires that an animal caretaker provide water, food, shelter and veterinary care. Animal abandonment may also be specifically addressed in some statutes. However, by definition, some animals – such as farmed animals, fish or wildlife – may be excluded from anti-cruelty statutes, and some actors – such as farmers engaged in common husbandry practices, veterinarians practicing medicine or research facilities engaged in experiments – may be exempted from the statutes. To read your state’s laws on animal neglect, see Animal Protection Laws of the United States of America & Canada. Legal advocates and prosecutors seeking advice on strategies for the successful prosecution of animal abuse cases can refer to ALDF’s  Legal Advocates’ Manual for Animal Abuse Criminal Cases.

Some state statutes also contain provisions separate from the animal cruelty statutes to address care requirements for breeding facilities. (These may be in the agriculture section of the code.)

Violations of state animal neglect laws are almost always misdemeanor-level violations. Washington and California have felony-level provisions for extreme animal neglect. In a state with only misdemeanor provisions for neglect, a diligent prosecutor can sometimes find an opportunity to charge a suspect with a felony, such as incidents involving large-scale property destruction. However, this back-door approach highlights the need for improved state laws that allow for felony charges in cases of extreme animal neglect. ALDF’s report on Confronting Animal Neglect in America: Current Law and Future Possibilities analyzes shortcomings in neglect laws and suggests statutory language to confront the problem of animal neglect.

Some state laws have provisions for pre-conviction forfeiture, cost of care bonds or liens, which can expedite permanent placement for the animals and allay the sheltering expenses for the care of seized animals. To read about options for prosecutors seeking to gain legal custody of abused animals in states without pre-conviction forfeiture provisions, see “Solutions to Long-Term Cases in States Without Pre-conviction Forfeiture Provision”.

Another way to expedite permanent placement for neglected animals is to use statutory provisions that allow a private citizen or organization to file a civil suit for an injunction against an accused animal abuser, thereby allowing the Court to terminate the defendant’s interest in the animals.  ALDF successfully used such a provision in North Carolina law in ALDF v. Woodley. Other states could easily adopt similar laws, using ALDF’s Model Animal Protection Laws Collection, which includes statutory language for civil injunctive relief for criminal violations.

Animal hoarders present challenges to the justice system beyond other types of neglect because the hoarder may be mentally ill. Furthermore, hoarders have a very high rate of recidivism. To stop the repeating cycle of abuse, sentencing orders should include psychological counseling and a prohibition on possession of animals. While these sentencing options are generally available to judges even where specific statutory language is lacking, adding them as mandatory provisions in each state’s anti-cruelty laws would result in such sentencing orders becoming routine.  Currently, only Illinois defines “animal hoarder” in their animal protection statutes and specifically requires convicted hoarders to get a psychological evaluation and treatment.

If a hoarder is deemed incompetent to stand trial, his or her animals may be in a legal limbo. In 2006, ALDF won an historic legal case involving termination of an unfit guardian’s interests. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that where a defendant has been found incompetent, a Court can appoint a trustee, such as a humane society, to determine what disposition is in the best interest of the animals. Ideally, in any case that results in a suspended prosecution or deferral, the Court should consider and provide for the best interest of the animals involved prior to dismissing the case.

County/City Ordinances

Animal-related ordinances at the county or city level are generally designed with the goal of protecting public safety and public health, although some provisions may be used to prevent the neglect of animals:

  • Municipalities may prohibit tethering of dogs or may limit tethering by the type or length of the tether or by the amount of time the animal is tethered. (A handful of state laws restrict tethering.) See a summary of anti-chaining laws.
  • Municipalities may limit the number of animals a person can possess in the jurisdiction. Although primarily aimed at preventing public nuisances, such laws may also give local authorities a tool to prevent hoarding and puppy mill situations.

Federal Law

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), 7 USC §2131 – §2159, requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. The Act provides guidelines for housing, enclosures, exercise, feeding, watering, sanitation and handling, but it does not regulate the type of experiments that can be performed on animals. The Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Violators may be subject to criminal and/or civil penalties or may have their licenses revoked.

The Act limits the types of animals it protects. It defines “Animal” as a “warm-blooded animal, which is being used, or is intended for use for research, teaching, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet.” Notably, however, the following animals are excluded from the Act: birds, rats, mice, reptiles and farmed animals – these animals account for over 95% of the animals used for research and raised for food in the United States.

Facilities covered by the Act include: research laboratories, dealers (breeders and brokers), exhibitors (zoos and circuses) and transporters. Facilities that are exempt include: retail pet stores, direct sellers, hobby breeders, public pounds, private shelters, private collections, livestock shows, pet shows, rodeos and any facility using nonregulated species.

The federal Twenty-Eight Hour Law, 49 USC §80502, addresses neglect of animals being transported across state lines by requiring that transporters “may not confine animals in a vehicle or vessel for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading the animals for feeding, water, and rest.”. Violators may be subject to a civil penalty.

The website for the Animal Legal and Historical Center has more information on the AWA, the Twenty-Eight Hour Law and other animal-related laws.

ALDF Resources

ALDF offers several resources to assist in investigating and prosecuting animal neglect crimes and to strengthen animal protection laws:

  • Confronting Animal Neglect in America: Current Law and Future Possibilities is a 2007 report reviewing the status of the laws of each state by chronicling both their statutes and case law as they relate to animal neglect. The report then makes recommendations of statutory options that have the potential for reducing the tragic incidence of neglect in the future, including language for felony provisions, sentencing requirements and termination of an unfit guardian’s interests.
  • ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program provides free legal services to prosecutors and investigators who are handling animal cruelty cases and to legislators who are working to improve animal protection laws.
  • Animal Hoarding Facts provides basic information about animal hoarding and what can be done to stop it.


Robert and Rebecca Collier – Indiana
Represented by ALDF, the United States Equine Rescue League (USERL)
filed a complaint in Indiana against Robert and Rebecca Collier for the
cost for caring for eight severely neglected horses. ALDF is also
assisting USERL in fighting a court order in Collier’s cruelty case,
which stated that the horses must be returned to Collier.

Michael, Judy and Gayle Keating – North Carolina
The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit against three
North Carolina residents for severely neglecting eight horses whom they
starved – in one case, literally to death – and deprived of all
veterinary care.

Janie Conyers – North Carolina
A dog breeder was keeping over 100 dogs and some birds in horrendous, filthy conditions with untreated, severe medical problems. ALDF filed a civil lawsuit resulting in a settlement that prohibited Conyers from ever owning another animal.

Vikki Rene Kittles – Oregon, Wyoming, Florida, Mississippi, Colorado, Washington
After being run out of several states, serial animal hoarder Vikki Kittles was keeping 116 dogs, all sick and some dying, in an old school bus in Oregon, where District Attorney Joshua Marquis and ALDF were determined not to let her get away again.

Jean Marie Primrose – Oregon
This case involved neglected cats who were left in legal limbo after their guardian was judged incompetent for trial. ALDF won a landmark court decision regarding termination of an unfit guardian’s interests.

Barbara and Robert Woodley – North Carolina
To rescue hundreds of dogs from abuse and neglect at the Woodleys’ breeding facility, ALDF used a unique provision in North Carolina law to win a permanent injunction against the Woodleys, thereby gaining custody of their 325 neglected dogs, in the largest civil animal cruelty case in history.

Vernon and Katonya Zawistowski – Washington
In this case, the defendants were convicted of neglecting two malnourished horses. An appeals court opinion found that the horses suffered pain due to the defendants’ failure to provide adequate food.

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