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What is animal cruelty and what are its main types?

Animal cruelty can be difficult to spot. Often it is perpetrated by people we might not expect or hidden behind the closed doors of a science lab or factory farm. Knowing what animal cruelty is, how to identify it, and how best to address it is important for the health and well-being of both animals and communities.

What is animal cruelty?

Animal cruelty takes place in a variety of settings and has a wide array of victims. There are two primary categories of animal cruelty: abuse and neglect. The first involves the intentional harming of an animal through actions such as mutilating, whereas neglect is a failure to provide adequate care, including access to food and water and veterinary care when needed. In Brazil the definition of animal abuse and neglect includes “confining an animal in a cruel manner; overworking an animal; to wound, injury or mutilate an animal; to cause an animal to fight with another; to train an animal by means of physical punishment.”

What are the main types of animal cruelty?

While there are generally two broad categories of animal cruelty: physical abuse and neglect, under each of these there are several subtypes that range in severity.


Animal neglect is fundamentally a failure to provide for the needs of animals. This could be leaving a dog outside without access to clean water or shelter from the elements, failure to feed a hamster, or not providing for the medical needs of an animal that has been injured and needs veterinary attention. Though neglect is often unintentional or due to financial or other constraints on the part of the neglectful person, it can also be intentional. For example: neglecting to feed a chicken to force molting and thereby get them to produce eggs again within the industry standards once food is once again offered.


Hoarding is a particularly severe form of neglect that involves a person owning a greater number of animals than they can provide adequate care for, leading to some or all of the animals suffering from neglect. Oftentimes, hoarders will market themselves as rescuers, as the hoarder feels that they are rescuing animals from suffering or homelessness. Some have suggested animal hoarding as a particular subset of Diogenes syndrome, a behavioral disorder of the elderly. However, animal hoarding crosses demographics with hoarders spanning age brackets.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse of animals is what we typically picture when we think of animal abuse. This type of abuse involves causing physical trauma to an animal. This could be soring a horse in order to make it perform better for competition, taking part in cockfighting, or otherwise injuring any animal in any way. Unfortunately, many types of physical animal abuse are condoned within certain industries. For example, chickens in the egg industry are often transported in tiny cages that result in an untimely death for some of the birds.

How to identify animal cruelty

Though animal cruelty must be addressed, it is also important to keep in mind that sometimes what is and is not viewed as cruelty can be influenced by cultural and familial background, lack of knowledge or experience, and a number of other factors. Because of this, if it is safe to do so, it might be worth sharing perspectives and learning together to address the issue and solve animal cruelty problems. For example, a neighbor with a wandering dog may not have the means to erect a fence but still want to allow their dog to have the freedom associated with a yard. Instead of having the animal removed from their care, perhaps working together to create an enclosure would be a wise course of action.

Because of these factors, identifying animal cruelty can prove tricky. There are, however, a few characteristics to be on the lookout for when cruelty is suspected. These characteristics can be physical, psychological, or environmental. In severe circumstances, or where more than one animal is present, it may be necessary to take action beyond just speaking to the responsible human. Signs of animal cruelty include:

  • Injuries that go untreated

  • Emaciation, or an animal that appears to be extremely underweight

  • General weakness

  • A matted or unkempt coat

  • A lack of access to clean food and water

  • A lack of shelter from the elements

  • Aggression

  • Fear

What are the effects of animal cruelty?

Pain and suffering

Animal cruelty can cause serious physical pain and suffering for the animals that endure it. Aside from the obvious pain that comes from being kicked or otherwise physically harmed, neglect can also be excruciatingly painful.

Public health concerns

Animal abuse also leads to a variety of safety hazards for public health. Because abused animals can be unpredictable behaviorally and may resort to aggression as a coping mechanism, abused animals pose a biting hazard for members of the public. Animals suffering from neglect may harbor parasites or bacteria that can spread to pets and even people if left untreated. The abuse endured by animals on farms can lead to the swift spread of diseases with the possibility of infecting human workers.

Risk of interpersonal violence

Another risk associated with unchecked animal abuse is an increase in interpersonal violence. Research has linked animal abuse to domestic violence, with many abusers using pets as a means of controlling a human victim. Ignoring animal abuse could mean that a human victim is also going unseen.

Who abuses animals?

When we think of animal abuse we tend to have a picture in our mind of what an animal abuser looks like, where they come from, where they live, and how they act. This image that we create for ourselves can actually prove detrimental to animal welfare and can be the reason that many animals are unable to escape their suffering. This is because people who abuse animals can come from any background, live in any neighborhood, look like anyone, and behave in a way that would never suggest that they abuse animals. For this reason it is important not to allow our biases to impact the way we look at and address animal suffering.

Correlation with domestic violence

One trait that has been correlated with animal abuse is domestic violence. One study that included 130 participants who accessed women’s support services in Ecuador found that 70 percent of the pet-owning women’s most recent partners had abused their animals. Serious abuse such as drowning, breaking bones, or even killing their pet was reported by 16 percent of women. In 75 percent of cases in which serious animal abuse was taking place, the abuse toward the participant had also been of a serious nature.

Which animals are the most common victims of animal cruelty?

The most common victims of animal cruelty are those within industries that condone cruelty to animals as standard practice. Two examples of such industries are animal agriculture and animal testing.

Animal agriculture

Every year billions of animals suffer on factory farms in order to produce food for human consumption. Chickens being raised for their meat often grow to such a large size over such a short period of time that their legs are unable to support themselves and they struggle to walk or even stand. While laying hens may be spared this suffering, the sheer number and size of eggs they are expected to produce leads to poor bone health and broken bones. Dairy cows are repeatedly bred so that they continuously produce milk, just to have their calves taken away and sold for veal. Despite their high intelligence, piglets have their tails removed to avoid later cannibalism.

Animal testing

Animal testing takes place both for cosmetic and scientific purposes. In cosmetic testing, animals may have chemicals placed into their eyes causing large amounts of irritation. Animals used for scientific tests could be subjected to a wide array of inhumane experiences, including forced swim tests in which a rat or mouse is dropped into water to see how long they spend attempting to climb out. These tests cause great amounts of stress to the animals.

Is animal cruelty a felony?

Though neglecting to feed a dog or neutering a cat without pain management would be considered illegal, these and more are considered common practice within various animal agriculture industries. The animals that we eat and force to produce our food experience horrific suffering, many from the moment that they are born until the day that they die. Their housing is barren and overcrowded. Their feed encourages rapid growth over healthy growth. They are treated as commodities instead of living, breathing, thinking beings.

Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act

Most countries have instituted some laws aiming to protect animals from suffering and cruelty. One such law is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in India. The language of this law makes it illegal to inflict, cause, or allow unnecessary pain or suffering for an animal. The law contains protections for animals such as horses and donkeys that are commonly used for work, preventing them from being overladen or working while injured. Among its other provisions, it also prohibits participation in animal fighting or shooting competitions.

How to stop animal cruelty

Should I report animal cruelty if I suspect it, but do not have proof?

If you sincerely believe that animal cruelty is taking place, and, if it’s safe, have attempted to have a dialogue with the offender to no avail, it may be time to escalate the situation regardless of whether you personally have proof. Speaking with a local animal rescue representative about the situation may enable you to better ascertain whether or not the situation is actually animal abuse and what might be considered proof. In many situations, a report may be enough to start an investigation.

Who should I call to report animal cruelty?

The first step when reporting animal cruelty is to contact a local veterinarian or animal shelter. The employees at these facilities should be able to help you determine the appropriate people to contact about your concerns.

Can I make a report anonymously?

Whether or not a report can be made anonymously will depend upon your location. Whereas some communities may have a mechanism for anonymous reporting others may require a name and contact information.

Should I try to stop someone harming an animal if I am nearby?

If it seems safe to do so, stepping in as an active bystander to stop the suffering of an animal could be lifesaving. This is especially the case when you suspect the responsible human may lack the knowledge or resources to handle the situation on their own.


One of the most impactful decisions we can make to help combat animal cruelty is to reduce our consumption of meat and other animal products. By far the greatest number of animals suffering in inhumane conditions are those that are being used to produce the foods that we consume. The decision to stop eating meat, dairy, or eggs has never been easier though, thanks to the delicious substitutes and meat alternative products that have recently come onto the market.


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