Can You go to Prison for Killing a Dog?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: November 10, 2021

Like millions of other Americans, I am a proud parent of two sweet fur babies — my Shih Tzu, Titus and my kitty cat, Dale. My pets are members of my family, so it’s hard for me to write content about animal cruelty.

A common question people have about prison is associated with that topic. So, I will keep my emotions out of it and do my best to answer today’s question: Can you go to prison for killing a dog?

In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Animal cruelty laws vary by state
  • When it’s legal to kill a dog
  • Famous cases of animal cruelty

Animal cruelty laws vary by state

Animal cruelty is defined differently in various states. As a rule, it is considered a misdemeanor, but all 50 states do have statutes that make an act of animal cruelty a felony if the conditions in the law are met. That means the answer to today’s question–can you go to prison for killing a dog?–is “yes.”

For example, in California cruelty to animals is defined as: 

“Maliciously and intentionally maims, mutilates, tortures, or wounds a living animal, or maliciously and intentionally kills an animal; or overdrives, overloads, drives when overloaded, overworks, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal or causes or procures any animal to be so treated.” 

If someone is charged with this crime in California, it can be either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the severity. The punishment is a fine of up to $20,000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year. 

In Missouri, cruelty to animals is defined as: 

“Intentionally or purposely kills an animal; purposely or intentionally causes injury or suffering to an animal; or having ownership or custody of an animal knowingly fails to provide adequate care or adequate control.”

The word that distinguishes animal abuse from animal neglect is “willfully.” Neglect can put an animal owner in jail for a few days with a $500 fine. Abuse, however, includes “torture or mutilation, or both, consciously inflicted while the animal was alive.” That can be a Class D felony that can put someone in prison for up to five years.

Exemptions are made for, “care or treatment by a licensed veterinarian, legitimate scientific experiments, hunting, fishing, trapping, zoological parks, rodeo practices, humane killing, animal husbandry, killing an animal that is attacking or injuring another person while outside the owner’s property, pests, and field trials, training and hunting practices for hunting dogs.”

To see the specific laws in your state for animal cruelty, click here.

When it’s legal to kill a dog

Even though animal abuse and cruelty is illegal in all 50 states and can put someone in prison if found guilty, there are legal justifications for killing a dog. 

Under the law, dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals are treated like property. That means that when someone kills someone else’s dog, they may have to compensate the owner. It’s also possible they could face criminal charges of animal cruelty and/or criminal property damage.

The exceptions are in specific circumstances written into state and local laws. Animal cruelty and abuse laws make it a crime to kill a dog “unnecessarily” or “without justification.” But you can justify killing a dog in self-defense or to protect someone else from harm. 

However, that doesn’t make it legal to shoot a dog just because it bites someone, barks, or growls. You have to reasonably believe that killing or injuring the dog is necessary in order to prevent serious injury or an immediate threat.

The legal language on this subject changes among the states. That means that the circumstances surrounding the killing of a dog are incredibly important. In some states, you are allowed to kill a dog even if it’s not in the middle of attacking someone. In others, not so much.

For example, there is a Pennsylvania statute that says it’s legal to kill a dog if it’s seen in the act of chasing or attacking people or other domestic animals. In New York, you can’t kill a dog for trespassing onto your property, but you can if it’s endangering children.

Many states do have laws concerning animals and farming. Some allow farmers or others to kill dogs that are chasing, harassing, or injuring their livestock or other animals. 

There are also a few states that allow the killing of dogs based on past behavior if they are known to be dangerous to “life, limb, or property.” These are known as “dangerous dog laws.” Oftentimes, these situations are placed in the hands of local authorities like animal control.

Animal control officers usually have the power to impound and euthanize dogs that are a threat based on their past behavior. Citizens don’t generally have the legal right to kill a dog just because they don’t like them or feel uncomfortable around them.

Even though dogs and other pets are considered property, there are serious punishments in most states for harming a domesticated animal. 

Famous cases of animal cruelty

I’ve got to be honest, I couldn’t research too much into famous cases of animal cruelty because my heart just couldn’t take it. However, I thought I would mention one famous case surrounding dogs and abuse — Michael Vick and Bad Newz Kennels.

Back in 2008, NFL quarterback Michael Vick and three others were convicted on federal and state charges related to illegal dogfighting. The pro athlete and his associates operated what they called “Bad Newz Kennels” –which housed and trained dozens of pit bull dogs, staged dog fights, killed dogs, and ran a gambling ring –on a Virginia property owned by Vick.

In the federal indictment, Vick was accused of executing dogs that didn’t perform well during their “testing” sessions. The methods used included hanging, drowning, shooting, and electrocution. 

Vick and his associates all eventually pleaded guilty to dog fighting and each received a three-year prison sentence, which were all suspended. Vick also had to pay approximately $3,000 in fines.

What do you think the punishment should be for animal abuse? Should it include a lengthy prison sentence? Let us know in the comments below.


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Case Study: Animal Fighting Michael Vick
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