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How to Recognize Signs of Animal Cruelty

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

signs of pet abuse

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act has been passed by the U.S. House and Senate and the President is now expected to sign it into law
  • The PACT Act revises a much less comprehensive 2010 law, but also has several exclusions of its own, including certain food animals and animals used for scientific research
  • To recognize instances of animal cruelty, it’s important to look beyond a pet’s behavior for physical and environmental signs of abuse and/or neglect
  • If you know or suspect your own adopted pet was abused by a former owner, there are steps you can take to create a safe environment in which your furry family member can rebuild confidence and learn to trust again

In October, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the H.R. 724: Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act that makes animal abuse a federal felony. The bill is a bi-partisan effort introduced by two Florida congressmen, and revises a previous law passed in 2010 that only prohibited animal fighting and only penalized those who created and sold videos depicting animal cruelty.

"The torture of innocent animals is abhorrent and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," Congressman Vern Buchanan told CNN. "Passing the PACT Act sends a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated."1

In early November, the U.S. Senate also unanimously passed the bill.

"Evidence shows that the deranged individuals who harm animals often move on to committing acts of violence against people," Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told CNN. "It is appropriate that the federal government have strong animal cruelty laws and penalties."2

The bill goes to the President next and has a 98% chance of being enacted.3 Some of the credit for the bill's success goes to Maryland high school student Sydney Helfand, whose Change.org petition in support of the PACT Act attracted over 800,000 signatures.4 The PACT Act has also been endorsed by the National Sheriffs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.

The bill will give authorities federal jurisdiction — which overrides state laws — to pursue people engaged in acts of animal cruelty, defined as crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, impaling, and sexual exploitation. If the acts occur on federal property, the perpetrators can be prosecuted and face federal felony charges, fines, and up to 7 years in prison.

Historically, the most comprehensive animal abuse laws in the U.S. have been enacted at the state level, which has resulted in a hodgepodge of safety provisions. The Animal Legal Defense Fund compiles annual rankings of the best and worst states for animal protection laws. If you live in the U.S., you can see where your state ranked in 2018 here.

It's important to note that unfortunately, the PACT Act doesn't cover every animal in every scenario. For example, the bill doesn't apply to the meat industry, accidents, "legitimate medical procedures," or other practices including scientific research.5

How to Recognize Animal Cruelty

According to the ASPCA, since it's not always possible to tell if an animal is being abused based on behavior alone, it's important to check for both physical and environmental signs of cruelty, including the following:6

  1. Tight collar that has caused a neck wound or has become embedded in the pet's neck
  2. Open wounds, signs of multiple healed wounds or an ongoing injury or illness that isn't being treated
  3. Untreated skin conditions that have caused loss of hair, scaly skin, bumps or rashes
  4. Extreme thinness or emaciation — bones may be visible
  5. Fur infested with fleas, ticks or other parasites
  6. Patches of bumpy, scaly skin rashes
  7. Signs of inadequate grooming, such as extreme matting of fur, overgrown nails and dirty coat
  8. Weakness, limping or the inability to stand or walk normally
  9. Heavy discharge from eyes or nose
  10. An owner striking or otherwise physically abusing an animal
  11. Visible signs of confusion or extreme drowsiness
  12. Pets tied up alone outside for long periods of time without adequate food or water, or with food or water that is unsanitary
  13. Pets kept outside in inclement weather without access to adequate shelter
  14. Pets kept in an area littered with feces, garbage, broken glass or other objects that could harm them
  15. Animals housed in kennels or cages (very often crowded in with other animals) that are too small to allow them to stand, turn around and make normal movements

How to Report Animal Cruelty

Find out who is responsible for investigating and enforcing the anti-cruelty codes in your town, county and/or state. This might be a local humane organization, animal control agency, taxpayer-funded animal shelter or police precinct. The ASPCA recommends that you try to gather the following information before submitting a report of animal cruelty:

  • A concise, written, factual statement of what you observed — giving dates and approximate times whenever possible — to provide to law enforcement.
  • Photographs of the location, the animals in question and the surrounding area. Note: do not put yourself in danger! Do not enter another person's property without permission, and exercise great caution around unfamiliar animals who may be frightened or in pain.
  • If you can, provide law enforcement with the names and contact information of other people who have firsthand information about the abusive situation.
  • It is possible to file an anonymous report, but please consider providing your information. The case is more likely to be pursued when there are credible witnesses willing to stand behind the report and, if necessary, testify in court.

When you're ready to submit your report, keep a record of exactly who you contacted and the dates, copies of any documents you provided, and the content and outcome of your contacts. If you don't receive a response to your case within a reasonable amount of time, make a polite follow-up call to inquire about the status of your case.

Was My Adopted Pet Abused? What to Look For

Pets who have been abused are very often withdrawn, distrustful, depressed, physically inactive, and unwilling to play. A particularly sensitive abused animal will be off in the corner of the room or in a hiding place, too insecure to even explore her environment. Often the fear extends to the outdoors and open spaces. Many abused pets are hyper-vigilant, tend to isolate themselves, and make very little noise.

Other signs of mistreatment depend on the type of abuse or neglect the animal has endured. For example, a young pet who has spent much of his time alone may exhibit extreme separation anxiety when not in the presence of his new adoptive guardian. If kitties aren't exposed to people during their first seven weeks, they can develop a permanent distrust of humans. Cats who've been frightened or physically hurt during those seven weeks may develop generalized hostility that can't be overcome.

10 Ways to Create a Safe Environment for a Previously Abused Pet

If you know or suspect your pet was abused in a former life, the first thing you should do is set some realistic goals, for both of you. Take care not to expect an overnight change in your furry companion, or a complete turnaround.

It takes time to help an abused pet learn to look at the world differently and develop trust in humans again. With knowledge, hard work and commitment, a previously abused animal can be transformed into a much-loved member of your family — but she can't be reborn. It's important to always remember that. Here are some general guidelines for creating a safe environment for a pet who has suffered abuse:

1. Make her feel loved and needed; communicate gently and clearly with her

2. Don't force anything on her; instead, allow her to adapt to her new family and life at her own pace. Provide her with a safe place where she can be alone when she feels like it

3. Protect her from whatever she fears

4. Create opportunities for her to be successful and build confidence

5. Feed her a nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate fresh diet and make sure she gets plenty of physical activity, including 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. The form of exercise may need to be adapted so your pet feels safe.

6. Everyone in the household should speak in low tones around your new pet, including when you're giving training commands. Don't shout at or around your pet. Dogs and cats are extremely sensitive to the tone of human voices, and it's very likely that yelling will be a trigger for a previously abused pet.

7. Spend some quiet time each day with your pet. Pick a room both of you are comfortable in, bring a supply of yummy treats, and close the door behind you. Read a book or engage in some other quiet activity, and every few minutes put a treat near your pet.

Any interaction she has with you or the treat gets rewarded with another treat. When she snatches up the treat or makes even the smallest move in your direction, consider it progress. Make time for these quiet one-on-ones each day to build her confidence and trust in you. Let her set the pace. Don't try to rush things.

8. If your dog or cat is fearful of unfamiliar people or other animals, protect her from forced interactions with them. There may come a time when she can better tolerate such exchanges, but it's counterproductive to force them on her before she's ready.

9. If your pet seems to panic when you leave the house, learn about separation anxiety and how to help.

10. Consider clicker training to build your pet's confidence.

After Stabilization Comes Desensitization

When your pet is well along the healing path you've laid out for him, it's time to initiate rehabilitation in the form of desensitization, which involves introducing a little bit of what bothers your pet, gradually and under close supervision, preferably working with a trained professional.

Desensitization of your pet might be controlled exposure to strangers or dogs or being left alone if separation anxiety is a problem. Desensitization is best performed along with counterconditioning, which associates the fear triggers with a positive response, typically food.

Rehabilitating an abused pet presents a significant challenge, because these animals have been exposed to negative things they can't "unlearn" despite your best efforts. But it's important to feel hopeful and be incredibly patient, because wonderful turnarounds do happen, and there's nothing more gratifying.

If you've rescued a previously abused pet or are considering adoption, I highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which was lovingly and expertly designed to help rescue dogs and adoptive guardians learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond, in conjunction with gentle training and rehabilitation.

Many abused animals have behavior issues that may not be immediately apparent. If notable issues continue to surface or you're having trouble helping your pet make the positive changes you'd hoped for, consider working with a veterinary behaviorist. Additionally, working with an integrative veterinarian who can suggest appropriate homeopathics, flower essences, and essential oil blends (via zoopharmacognosy), may help facilitate positive feelings, emotions and behavior changes sooner than expected.