What Is Animal Cruelty and How Can We Stop it For Good?

animal cruelty

Every 60 seconds, an animal gets abused. That’s unconscionable, especially in our advanced culture, but animal cruelty continues to occur all over the world.

Animal cruelty can take many different forms, as you’ll discover below, but the impact is always the same. A sentient animal capable of love and creating social relationships experience pain, fear, and desperation. And it needs to stop.

We live in a world that not only turns a blind eye to animal cruelty but condones it — whether through indifference or legislation. It’s legal to raise chickens in deplorable conditions for the sole purpose of slaughtering them later. If that isn’t animal cruelty, then what is?

The problem is that there aren’t enough people fighting for animal rights. If everyone started to look at animals — and not just dogs and cats — as fellow animals who share our planet, we would see far fewer cases of cruelty toward animals.

First, though, we have to spread awareness. What is animal cruelty? What does it look like? And how can we stop contributing to it?

What Is Animal Cruelty?

what is animal cruelty

Animal cruelty is the abuse toward or neglect of an animal. It’s that simple. Some aspects of animal cruelty involve purposefully putting animals in situations that harm, scare, and terrorize them, while others simply result from people looking the other way.

Most animal cruelty investigations involve large-scale operations that victimize hundreds or thousands of animals at a time. For instance, the SPCA frequently goes undercover at factory farming operations to expose the cruel conditions in which farmed animals live.

However, animal cruelty takes place every day in all places, not just in the world of industrial animal agriculture. It might be happening inside your neighbor’s house, at an entertainment venue in your city, or at a lab near where you work. You’ve likely encountered stray animals throughout your life — companion animals who have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

Cases of animal cruelty fall into several categories. Let’s explore them in more detail.

Animal Abuse

Most cases of animal abuse involve the willful harming of a nonhuman animal. When a man kicks a dog for having an accident in the house or when a woman whips her horse for failing to respond to a command, those are instances of animal abuse.

One of the problems facing animal rights activists is that animal abuse rarely occurs in plain view. It happens behind closed doors and in factory farms that aren’t open to the public. When we don’t see it occur, we can pretend it doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately for the affected animals, it does exist. Animal cruelty and abuse is a systemic problem that often gets handed down from parent to child, boss to worker, and culture to culture.

There’s a reason most jurisdictions have animal control officers. These members of law enforcement bravely investigate cases of animal abuse, prosecute the offenders, and rescue the animals. However, they’re only effective when someone reports the abuse.

Animal Neglect

In some cases, animal neglect stems from ignorance. A person keeps an animal on his or her property and doesn’t know how to properly care for that animal. This isn’t a justification for the neglect, but a recognition that we need to educate people about the animals in their care.

Neglect can also stem from disinterest. If a dog owner notices that the animal has sustained an injury, he or she is morally and legally obligated to obtain veterinary care. Unfortunately, some people are unwilling to spend the time and money necessary to heal their sick or injured pets.

Similarly, a companion animal might go days or weeks without food because the owner “just forgets.” That’s not an excuse. Every day, emaciated, diseased, flea-ridden animals enter shelters. Some get adopted by loving families. Others aren’t so lucky.

Worse, some animals spend their entire lives in neglectful circumstances. They eventually die of dehydration, malnutrition, untreated diseases, or other conditions.

Animal Exploitation

For some people, there’s a sense of entitlement toward animals. These people believe that we have the right to use animals in any way we wish, usually for monetary gain. Exploiting animals is a form of animal cruelty, however, especially when the exploitation goes against the animal’s instincts or forces the animal into scary or unsafe situations.

Circuses, zoos, aquatic theme parks, and other venues often exploit animals in the name of entertainment. The crowds don’t see how the animals are forced into submission, kept in tiny cages, and denied socialization with others of their own species.

Did you know that 96 percent of a circus animal’s life is spent in a cage? They’re transported from city to city in trailers that lack climate control, and they often use barbaric devices to force performances, from bullwhips and chains to cattle prods.

Even zoos, which are often viewed as positive contributions to a community, have been rife with animal cruelty. Zoo animal abuse can take many forms, from starving animals to sending them to livestock options. This doesn’t even take into account the many accidents that have occurred due to poorly constructed exhibits.

Human Predation

Human beings are often called “apex predators.” Because of our unique skill set, we can dominate animals easily. The question is whether we should — and the answer is no.

When humans prey on animals, we take away their agency and reduce them to nothing but food on a plate. Sometimes, we even prey on animals without the desire to eat them. The fur farming industry is one solid example.

There’s no reason for humans to prey on animals. Endless cases of animal cruelty come from factory farming, hunting, and fishing.

Consider, for instance, that anyone can get a hunting license. There’s no test to find out of they can shoot straight. Every year, hunters maim animals with non-lethal shots, which means those animals die slow, excruciating deaths.

Animal Testing

We’ve been testing products on animals for many decades, and even though our scientific developments have rendered animal testing unnecessary — and even less effective than other testing methods — it still occurs all around the world.

Animals in testing facilities are exposed to all manner of chemicals and substances, many of which cause itching, burning, chronic pain, lost body parts, and other terrible consequences. The animal cruelty that pervades laboratories doesn’t need to continue.

Imagine spending your entire life confined to a hospital bed — one that has no mattress or blankets. You’re constantly receiving “treatments” that cause discomfort, and you can’t have any visitors.

That’s a close analogy to the animal cruelty involved in laboratory testing.

Why Do People Treat Animals Cruelly?

why do people treat animals cruelly

People who participate in animal cruelty don’t have horns poking out of the tops of their heads, and they don’t twirl their mustaches while cackling evilly. Instead, they look like your neighbor, your friend, your teacher, or your boss.

There’s no specific reason behind animal cruelty. It can occur because of many different causes, many of which stem from human self-interest. If we care only about human beings, we can view animals through a distorted lens.

In most cases, animal cruelty doesn’t feel like an immoral act to the person who commits it. He or she can justify the behavior in myriad ways. Let’s look at a few of the most common justifications.

Viewing Animals as Objects

Research shows that, historically, wars and genocide often begin with a campaign of dehumanization. In other words, we can only go to war with other human beings when we strip them of their humanity through language. We’re not built to kill each other.

Nonhuman animals are often viewed as objects. They’re not sentient beings with emotions and needs, but merely a means to an end for those who would victimize them.

If you get really mad at your laptop for breaking down on you, there’s no moral imperative to stop you from throwing it across the room, beating it with a ball peen hammer, or tearing it apart. You’re angry at the device, so you destroy it because it has no sentience.

When we view animals the same way, animal cruelty results. The animal has no more significance than a tool or device. People who mistreat animals can separate themselves from the beings they hurt, so they don’t feel as though they’re doing anything wrong.

For instance, a hunter might view a buck as food. The hunter sees the venison steak he’s going to cook for his family rather than the beautiful creature he’s captured in his rifle’s sights.

Using Animals for Monetary Gain

Many instances of animal cruelty result from the desire to make money. If someone can sell animal meat or by-products and make a profit, he or she can justify the slaughtering of innocent animals. In the farmer’s mind, he or she is simply providing for his or her family.

The same goes for any industry that victimizes animals for human monetary gain:

  • Selling furs and pelts
  • Breeding companion animals in a mill
  • Purveying tickets to an animal entertainment show
  • Stealing body parts from animals to sell as trinkets

The list goes on. Human beings are motivated by earning money, and if they have to engage in animal cruelty to get it, some will do so. Again, they’re able to separate the animal from what it provides and to disregard its sentient nature.

Disregarding Animal Feelings and Emotions

Some people believe that animals truly don’t emote. They believe that human beings are the only animal on earth that can feel pain, fear, sadness, joy, despair, and hope.

Those people are wrong. Anyone who has pets can attest that animals absolutely feel emotions. They experience joy when they get to play with a new toy, pain when they injure themselves, fear when they’re confronted with a new experience, sadness when someone they love dies.

But emotions aren’t limited to dogs and cats.

We’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest, for instance, that wild animals grieve the deaths of their loved ones.

They might express grief in different ways, but they clearly acknowledge when a member of their species passes on.

What Other Crimes Are Correlated With Animal Cruelty?

Animal cruelty doesn’t often exist in a vacuum. Instead, it comes part and parcel with other crimes. Think about a person who has the capacity to kick or hit a dog. Imagine what else he or she might be capable of.

Domestic Violence

One study found that animal abusers were up to five times as likely to commit domestic violence as non-abusers. Domestic violence can include abuse targeted at spouses, children, the elderly, and the mentally handicapped.

In a household where domestic violence occurs, the family pet might suffer the first few blows. However, the abuser is likely to hurt other members of the household.

Another study determined that in homes where children were abused, 88 percent also showed evidence of animal cruelty. There’s a consistent and disturbing link between animal abuse and the abuse of fellow human beings.

Abusers often go to jail when they’re convicted of abusing a human family member, but what about the non-human household members? These animals might suffer years of abuse before the abuser is brought to justice — if that ever even happens.


Forensic expert Melinda Merck is convinced that there’s a link between animal cruelty and murder, as well. She was part of the investigation into Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring. Her persistent investigation into the connection between animal cruelty and violent offenders has inspired the law enforcement community to check into it, as well.

Chicago police, for instance, discovered that people who had been convicted of animal cruelty were more likely to find themselves involved in homicide investigations later on. Additionally, law enforcement has long linked animal abuse to psychopathy and sociopathy.

People who go on to become spree or serial killers often begin with animals. It’s easier to capture and kill an animal than a human being, so nonhuman animals become “practice.”

Drug and Gun Trades

According to 2006 statistics, people who own vicious dogs are more likely to be involved in criminal enterprises. Of course, as any dog lover knows, canines aren’t born vicious. They’re taught to behave aggressively by their owners.

Pit bulls are often demonized as vicious, aggressive, and dangerous, but many people have loving pit bull pets who would never intentionally harm someone else. The problem is with the upbringing and training.

In many cultures, owning an aggressive dog is a status symbol that communicates to other criminals that they shouldn’t try to get one up on them. The animals become props for criminals who use them as protection from criminal rivals.

This is its own form of animal cruelty because aggression goes against the dog’s nature. Even police dogs, who are used to apprehend suspects — sometimes violently — aren’t intentionally harming another human being. It’s their job, and they let go as soon as they’re ordered to do so.

Unfortunately, dogs often get hurt or killed while accompanying their owners. If a drug deal goes bad and the guns come out, the chances of a dog getting shot go up exponentially. These animals don’t understand what they’re fighting for or against.

What Are the Differences Between Animal Cruelty by Omission and Animal Cruelty by Commission?

what is animal cruelty by omission and commission

The literature defines two forms of animal cruelty: cruelty by omission and cruelty by commission.

If you’ve ever worked with an animal trainer, you know that reputable experts use positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement introduces something positive to reward the animal, whether it’s a treat or a favorite toy, or a word of praise. Negative reinforcement, by contrast, takes away something the animal wants. For instance, if the animal doesn’t perform a command, he or she doesn’t get the treat.

Animal cruelty by omission and commission follow similar veins.

An act of animal cruelty by omission generally refers to neglect. The person responsible for the abuse withholds something the animal needs: food, water, shelter, access to veterinary care. Meanwhile, animal cruelty by commission involves adding something negative to the animal’s life, whether it’s a chemical applied in an animal testing lab or a beating by a cruel human being.

Which Animals Suffer the Most?

animal cruelty

Some animals face more animal cruelty than others. Generally speaking, the animals that can provide monetary value to human beings are destined to face the most cruelty.

People can behave cruelly because of their nature. For instance, an unhappy person might take out that dissatisfaction on the family cat simply because the cat can’t fight back. There’s no monetary gain — just a brief sense of satisfaction that comes from dominating another creature.

It’s horrific, but it happens.

Other forms of animal cruelty are slightly less obvious but just as disastrous. These occur because the people responsible for the cruelty truly believe that they’re acting in humanity’s best interests.

People who own and work in factory farming operations, for instance, believe that they’re providing a necessary service. They’re slaughtering animals for their meat to feed omnivorous human beings.

However, we don’t need animal meat or by-products to survive. Furthermore, many of the people in these operations commit acts of unnecessary cruelty just because.

Companion Animals

Perhaps the most common recipients of animal cruelty are the dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and other pets with whom we live. Most of us love our companion animals and would never hurt them, but some people see the family dog as a punching bag.

Again, there’s a clear correlation between animal cruelty and domestic violence. People who have no trouble kicking the dog or throwing the cat across the room might also beat their wives, husbands, and children.

These people allow their rage and hatred to overtake their sense of morality. They might experience and express sorrow afterward, but that doesn’t negate the original act.

Companion animals also suffer from neglect. For instance, when people don’t spay or neuter their animals, the pets can get pregnant and produce unwanted litters. The puppies, kittens, or other baby animals then wind up at the local animal shelter as surrendered animals.

Some cases are more heartbreaking than others. Neglect can include failing to provide water and food for companion animals. These pets rely on their human owners to provide what they can’t get for themselves. Since they’re confined to a home, they can’t rely on natural instincts.


Animals bred to provide meat, eggs, and milk also experience lifelong suffering at the hands of humans. This is even true of so-called “free range” and “organically raised” animals. Manufacturers can put these labels on food without changing many aspects of the way they care for the animals.

Chickens, cows, and other livestock spend their entire lives in tiny cages that prevent them from moving in any direction — or even from turning around. Because they live in their own waste, diseases can proliferate quickly, and farm workers sometimes beat the animals “just because.”

Worse, these animals are frequently mutilated to serve the farmers’ best interests. The animal cruelty can involve debeaking, dehorning, castration without anesthetic, live plucking, and more. Pigs get rings shot through their noses so they can’t root, which prevents them from answering a deeply embedded instinct that brings them pleasure.

All of these instances of animal cruelty can be stopped. There’s no reason for them, especially if we realize that we don’t need animal products to survive.


Fish and other animals that live in oceans and other bodies of water are farmed more than any land creature. Millions of fish get swept up in nets and asphyxiate without access to oxygen from the water. Sharks are relieved of their fins for shark fin soup, which means that they die in the ocean where they’re left.

Larger sea creatures get harpooned, stabbed, or otherwise assaulted. Some of them survive but eventually succumb to their injuries. The pain they experience can’t be calculated because they can’t tell us, but we know that animals experience pain.

We even have reality shows about the mass capture of animals, such as crabs in Alaska, that are killed en-masse for someone’s dinner. These animals are hauled out of their homes, thrust onto a ship, and left in barrels or other containers with others of their own kind. They have no agency, free will, or hope.


Animal cruelty can come from numerous angles, as we’ve discussed throughout this article. Rodents, such as rats and mice, endure some of the most horrific acts of animal cruelty both as so-called pests and as subjects of animal testing.

People don’t want rats in their home, for instance, which is understandable. Instead of blocking access points, they set traps that either kill the animals slowly or break their backs. These animals are simply searching for food and shelter; they don’t have any ill will toward humans.

Many cruelty-free traps exist that cage the animals temporarily so they can be released in the wild. Unfortunately, most people don’t consider such avenues because they’re less expedient.

In laboratories, rats suffer significant discomfort as they’re exposed to products, diseases, parasites, and other horrific substances. They’re forced to live in tiny cages without any hope of socializing with others of their kind, breathing fresh air, or enjoying a life free from animal cruelty.

Furthermore, rats are purchased from pet stores not as companion animals, but as food for other pets, such as snakes and large lizards. The rats are often stunned before being dropped in aquariums, which means hitting them on the head so they present less of a fight for the intended predator.

What Are the Most Common Issues Associated With Animal Cruelty?

issues connected with animal cruelty

We’ve addressed some of the mechanisms behind animal cruelty — abuse, neglect, exploitation, and so on — but how do these mechanisms manifest in the real world? Let’s look at some specific practices that result in animal harm and reduce the quality of life for both companion animals and wild animals.

Animal Fighting

Whether it’s bullfighting, cockfighting, dogfighting, or fighting between other animals, these blood sports are among the most horrific aspects of animal cruelty. They pit one animal against another, whether human or nonhuman, and result in the death of at least one of the animals.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about social animals that, in the wild, coexist without problem. They might establish pecking orders through dominant behaviors, but they don’t fight to the death. That would negate their survival instinct.

Animal fighting isn’t just about entertainment. It’s a cash cow — pardon the pun. Organizers collect money from attendees and facilitate betting. As we saw when the Michael Vick dog fighting scandal broke out, these events aren’t as underground or as rare as one might have previously thought.

In reality, they’re highly organized events that take place in every corner of the world. While some law enforcement jurisdictions make an effort to seek out animal fighting and punish those who would participate, others do not.

Animals bred or raised for fighting must endure hauntingly despicable conditions during their short lives. They’re kept in small cages except when they’re being trained to fight. They don’t receive veterinary care — whether preventative or trauma-related.

The animals that “win” the competitions often come away with missing body parts, open wounds, broken bones, and other injuries. The animals that can no longer fight are subsequently destroyed.

Puppy and Kitty Mills

There’s a reason animal rights groups advocate for adopting shelter animals as companion pets. Puppy and kitty mills are businesses that systematically breed animals for the purpose of selling the babies at inflated prices through pet stores and online.

These animals aren’t selected for their breed characteristics or genetic health. Consequently, the puppies and kittens are often born with congenital conditions that deplete their quality of life.

Furthermore, the animals are kept in tiny cages with no access to play or socialization. They’re often dirty, undernourished, and terrified. In some cases, they get beaten and otherwise abused.

These forms of animal cruelty only exist because there’s a market for pure-bred puppies and kittens. If everyone adopted pets from shelters, we wouldn’t see such high rates of animal homelessness across the world.

Factory Farming

The words “factory” and “animal” should never be found in the same sentence. When we think of factories, we imagine manufactured parts for televisions, refrigerators, and furniture.

Unfortunately, animal cruelty extends to the farming world. While we’d like to imagine that farm animals are grazing on lush grass in huge pastures with hay-bedded stalls awaiting them at night, those pastoral images are far from reality.

Factory farmed animals don’t receive any more consideration than the aforementioned machined parts. They’re viewed as objects. Farmers pack as many animals into a given space as possible, provide as little veterinary care as they can get away with, and use the animals until they die of exhaustion or disease or until they’re slaughtered for meat.

Even slaughter doesn’t rescue these creatures from animal cruelty. Some get their throats slit while hanging upside down, but they don’t always die from the wound. They then suffocate in mounds of their own species, get boiled to death, or are killed by electric shock.

And while animal welfare groups and animal rights activists are fighting against factory farms, we’re still a long way away from ending animal agriculture.

Animal Hoarding

Some forms of animal cruelty come from a place of kindness. People who hoard animals believe in their hearts that they’re saving these animals and treating them kindly. Their mental illnesses prevent them from seeing the acts of cruelty they inflict on the animals.

Many cases of animal hoarding involve homes so crammed with animals that the owner doesn’t even realize when one of them has died. The odors of feces and urine cover up the smell of decomposition, leading to horrific circumstances for both the human and the nonhuman animals.

Worse, animal hoarders often take in animals that have not been spayed or neutered. Consequently, new litters of animals are born in the home, sometimes without any veterinary oversight or subsequent care. If the animals are later removed from the home, even more companion pets get placed in shelters.

Animal hoarding is highly preventable. In family members, friends, and neighbors report these instances, law enforcement can intervene and the humans can receive care for their mental illnesses.

Horse Slaughter

The United States closed all domestic horse slaughter plants in 2007. However, the number of horses sent for slaughter has not decreased because these animals are shipped out of the country — often to Canada or Mexico.

Horse slaughter is perhaps an even more startling example of animal cruelty than the slaughter of other species. Horses have extremely heightened fight-or-flight responses, which has enabled them to survive in the wild despite having few ways to protect themselves. When they’re taken into the slaughterhouse, they can sense the danger and become terrified.

Horses are extremely athletic. They can rear, buck, kick, and spin. Consequently, they can’t be easily stunned prior to slaughter, and the humans involved in slaughtering horses opt for protecting themselves from hooves and teeth over humanely euthanizing the animals.

These horses die in terror, sometimes living through parts of their dismemberment. They sense the terror from their fellow equines and know that they’re in danger, which makes their last few hours of life torturous.

In addition to animal cruelty, horse slaughter also creates health concerns for human populations. Horses receive different veterinary care than livestock like chickens and cows. This makes their meat unsafe for human consumption, yet people eat horse meat all over the world.

Entertainment Animals

Some animals love to perform. Horses can derive as much enjoyment from jumping, dressage, barrel racing, and other events as their human companions. Dogs often get lots of mental and physical stimulation from events like Frisbee and agility.

However, this doesn’t mean that all animals are designed to perform. Many are forced into the practice through animal cruelty, from whips to cattle prods, to the withholding of food and water.

Several aquatic animal trainers have been killed while working with animals like dolphins and orcas. We know from the research that these animals are naturally friendly. Indeed, they have saved human lives in the wild.

Yet they resist performing and do not fare well in captivity. These animals are built to roam hundreds or thousands of square miles in the ocean. When they’re held captive in relatively tiny tanks, they suffer from depression and can even become aggressive.

The same goes for wild animals used to perform tricks in circuses. Lions, for instance, naturally fear fire. They’re forced to jump through rings of fire so crowds can clap and enjoy themselves.

Fur Farming

Many instances of animal cruelty involve human beings taking things from animals as though we’re entitled to them. It might be their dignity, their meat, their eggs, or their milk. In some cases, it’s their fur.

Animal pelts can go for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There’s a huge black market for animal furs, some of which come from endangered creatures.

In the interest of expediency, some animals are “field-stripped” in the wild, which sometimes means that they’re skinned alive. Other animals, such as minks and foxes, are raised in farms, not unlike the ones used for livestock. When they’re old enough, they’re killed and stripped of their fur.

There is no logical or practical reason for this animal cruelty to continue. We don’t need animal pelts to survive. It’s possible to fill our jackets, duvets, pillows, and other home goods with synthetic fibers that don’t require down feathers. We can use synthetic blankets, rugs, and wall hangings.

What Are the Best Ways to Combat Animal Cruelty?

how to stop animal cruelty

Animals need our help. They can’t end animal cruelty on their own, so we have to step in and let people who victimize our fellow animals know that it’s not okay.

Joining animal rights organizations is a great first step. Whether you donate your time or your money, you can become part of the solution. These organizations launch investigations, report animal cruelty to authorities, raise awareness, and rescue animals.

If you witness animal abuse for yourself, report it. You don’t want to confront an abuser on your own because you could get hurt, but neither should you turn away from it. Maybe you have a family member who has begun hoarding animals. You might feel guilty for reporting it, but remember that you’re helping the animals as well as your loved one.

Additionally, avoid attending entertainment events that victimize animals. By paying for tickets, you’re telling the event organizers that you approve of their methods. Sometimes, the best way to prevent animal cruelty is to withhold your dollars.

Consider going vegan if you haven’t already. Don’t eat meat, eggs, dairy, honey, or any other animal by-products. Police your non-food products so you don’t buy anything that has been tested on animals or contains products that come from our furred and feathered friends.

The most important thing you can do is spread awareness. Let people know about the animal cruelty that goes on in all these situations. Share articles like this one on social media, invite people to ask you questions about animal abuse and don’t miss an opportunity to explain why you don’t eat meat.

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Animal cruelty is real and pervasive. Speciesism is the cause of these kinds of abuses. Because people see animals as “less valuable” than humans, these atrocities continue to happen over and over. It happens to all different types of animals and in every corner of the world. It’s also preventable and unnecessary.

Animals are sentient creatures who deserve our respect and protection. They aren’t aggressive toward human beings unless they’re threatened, and we’ve already stolen much of their wildlife space for our own needs. The last thing we need to do is add to their suffering.

There’s no reason to buy animal products at the store or to participate in activities that increase animal cruelty. You have the power to vote for your elected officials, and you also have the power to vote for animals with your dollars.

As more people become aware of animal cruelty, we’ll have more power to stop it. Don’t just read this article. Share it. Contribute your own voice to the cause.

Have you ever witnessed animal cruelty for yourself? What did you do about it?