What to Do When You See a Pet Being Abused or Neglected

PetMD Editorial
September 09, 2016
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By David F. Kramer

Witnessing a case of animal abuse or neglect is heartbreaking… and demands action. But you have to respond in the right way if you want to truly improve the animal’s lot in life while also protecting yourself from possible repercussions. Let’s look at several of the most common type of animal abuse and neglect and how to best respond to each.

How to Help a Pet in a Hot Car

During the summer months, animal lovers are often faced with a nightmare scenario: You find yourself walking through a crowded parking lot, when you spy a panting dog carelessly left in a hot car.

Your first instinct may be to find something heavy to break the window and rescue the animal from its neglectful owner. While this may seem a reasonable reaction in the heat of the moment, it’s not always the best option—and certainly not one without potential legal repercussions, even when you know you’re in the right.

So what’s the best action to take when you see a pet in a hot car that appears to be in danger?

“While we don’t want to see animals locked in hot cars, we also want to be reasonable to our fellow human beings,” says Jack Griffin, director of shelter services for the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, PA. “You always want to try first to assess the situation. Go into the store and have the person paged. The car could be running with the air conditioner on. We want to at least make sure we’re trying before we jump in with both feet.”

Despite the best intentions, private citizens taking actions into their own hands may be responsible for any property damage they cause. But in some jurisdictions, that situation is changing. A law recently passed in the state of Colorado now protects good Samaritans who break a vehicle’s window to rescue a dog from a hot car as long as they first make an effort to find the dog’s owners, call the police, and then stay on the scene until the authorities arrive.

Griffin offers some other warnings when it comes to taking an extreme action such as breaking a window to rescue an animal. “I don’t recommend this, because there can be further consequences. When you break a window, glass flies, and it could potentially get into a dog’s eyes or ears.” Another factor Griffin brings up is that the rescuer is unfamiliar with the demeanor of an unknown dog, and there’s no way to predict how it might react. A dog could potentially attack its rescuer out of fear or even run away from them into oncoming traffic and be injured or killed.

“If you see an animal that appears to be in an immediate life threatening situation, for instance, trapped in a hot car, strangling itself on a collar, injured and bleeding, or suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately,” says Nicole Wilson, director of Humane Law Enforcement for the Pennsylvania SPCA.

“In these situations, the police and emergency services will have the personnel and tools to respond immediately, and it is very likely that a humane officer will not be close enough to prevent the animal’s death. Emergency services will respond in the fastest manner when there is a danger of immediate death,” says Wilson.

Once the animal is out of danger, that’s when you can start to get the ball rolling through the proper channels. The first step is to get in touch with your local SPCA or Humane Society to report the abuse; most groups have a dedicated hotline to receive reports of potential animal abuse.

How to Help a Pet in Freezing Temperatures

Pets at risk are certainly not only found in hot cars in the summer. Pet lovers may also have to grapple with the decision of what to do for a pet that is left outside in the cold winter months.

We might feel a pit in our stomachs when we walk by a dog that is tethered, caged, or kept in a yard during the winter. But the simple truth is that in many cases it’s not illegal to keep dogs outside for long periods, even in the winter.

In fact, as long as a dog has access to food and water, shelter (even a simple awning as opposed to an enclosed doghouse or other structure), and some sort of moisture absorbing substrate on the ground (such as hay), having a pet that spends most of its time outdoors is permissible.

It’s the job of humane officers and SPCA staff to investigate and deal with matters of animal abuse; and they are far better suited to the task than the average citizen. A citizen who goes onto someone’s property to investigate what they believe is animal abuse, or to rescue a pet, can be charged with trespassing or theft of property. And depending upon the demeanor of the pet owner, these actions can be downright dangerous.

“Humane Society Officers have the same powers under the law as police when it comes to investigating the crime of cruelty to animals. In Pennsylvania, these officers have full powers of search, seizure, citation and arrest,” says Wilson. “As in all matters of the law, in cases of animal cruelty there needs to be probable cause to believe that the animal is evidence of a crime. In most cases, a warrant is also necessary for the confiscation of animals.”

What is Being Done Legally to Protect Pets?

In recent years, some local jurisdictions have enacted “red and blue” laws that go into effect to protect animals during extreme temperatures and weather conditions, but they are the exception. (You can learn more about the measures being taken to protect pets from extreme weather conditions in the links below this article.)

Every state has its own set of animal cruelty laws, and they generally penalize two types of actions: intentional acts (abuse) and failure to act (neglect). Intentional acts, such as striking, beating, or similar actions, can lead to felony charges, but proving willful neglect is more difficult. A prosecutor would need to prove that state law demands shelter from the elements for a pet, that extreme weather conditions necessitated that need, and that the pet owner was neglectful in failing to provide shelter.

Next: How to Tell if a Pet is Being Starved, Abused, or Neglected

How to Tell if a Pet is Being Starved

A casual observer might be able to pick up on signs that an animal has been neglected or abused. Even if you don’t witness overt acts, an animal may carry symptoms of abuse and neglect with them, as well as in their surroundings.

When it comes to cases of malnutrition and outright starvation, for example, here are some of the things you can look out for.

Dogs have varied body shapes, and some breeds are rather thin even when they’re healthy. Most of us are not accustomed to seeing thin dogs due to the epidemic of pet obesity that we are currently dealing with.  

Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Fort Collins, CO notes that professionals use established guidelines like the “Body Condition System” to determine if an animal is potentially being underfed and malnourished, or in extreme situations, starved. For example, a dog would be classified as having a body condition of 1 out of 7 (emaciated) if the “ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all bony prominences” are visible at a distance and the animal has “no discernible body fat” and an “obvious loss of muscle mass." 

Coates also notes that a dog may be “very thin because of a health condition, even if it is being treated.” While the moral high road is to err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting animals, Coates says it may be wise to find out more about the dog's circumstances before judging the situation, and when in doubt, “call your local Animal Control Agency and leave it to them to contact the dog’s owner.”

How to Tell if a Pet is Being Abused or Neglected

While there are many noticeable signs of abuse in pets, it is sometimes best to look for a combination of factors before taking action. A pet might appear to be skinny or dirty or be outdoors during cold or hot weather or in an unkempt yard, but it can be next to impossible for a passer-by to determine when the legal threshold for neglect or abuse has been reached. 

Among the signs of potential animal neglect and abuse that you can look for are a poor coat and body condition (with untreated open sores and obvious wounds being most telling); a lack of food, water, shelter, and sanitation; abandonment; an animal that is tied or caged with little room to move, stand, or turn; chains or other objects that have embedded into an animal’s skin; evidence of a dog fighting operation; or too many animals living on a single property, which could be a sign of hoarding.

Dr. Coates reiterates, “Taking matters into your own hands can be dangerous. If you come across an animal that you suspect has been neglected or abused, bring it to the attention of your local Humane Society or Animal Control Agency and let them take it from there.”

What Happens to Pets After They Are Removed from Abusive or Neglectful Owners?

While we might breathe a sigh of relief when an animal is removed from an abusive or neglectful situation, this certainly doesn’t mean the pet is out of the woods. These animals are sometimes held as evidence and may be unadoptable until their cases are settled. Animal abuse cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute. It can take months, or even years, until it’s resolved.

Thankfully, there are procedures (voluntary surrender, animal forfeiture, protective orders, etc.) that the authorities can use to make sure that animals who have been neglected or abused don’t just end up back with the people who did them wrong in the first place.

How to Know What You Should Do

So what should you do when you suspect that an animal is being abused or neglected? The best advice is to temper one’s concern with careful thought and consideration. Unless an animal’s life is in immediate danger, it’s best to report the situation to humane authorities and let them pursue it through the proper legal channels.