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

animal cruelty

Every 60 seconds, an animal is abused. It’s unconscionable, especially in our supposedly 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 social relationships experiences pain, fear, and desperation. It needs to stop.

We live in a world that not only turns a blind eye to animal cruelty but condones it — through both moral indifference and 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 creatures 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 or neglect of an animal. It’s that simple. Some types of animal cruelty involve purposefully putting animals in situations that harm or scare them, while others simply result from people looking the other way.

Most animal cruelty investigations are into large-scale operations that victimize hundreds or thousands of animals at a time. The SPCA frequently goes undercover at factory farming operations to expose the cruel living conditions of farmed animals. Yet animal cruelty takes place every day in all kinds of 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 on 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.

Most jurisdictions have animal control officers, and these members of law enforcement bravely investigate cases of animal abuse, prosecute the offenders, and rescue the animals. However, they are only effective if 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 it means 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 obliged 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.

Emaciated, diseased, flea-ridden animals enter shelters every day. Some get adopted by loving families. Others aren’t so lucky. Some animals spend their entire lives in neglectful circumstances, eventually dying of dehydration, malnutrition, or untreated diseases.

Animal Exploitation

Some people have a sense of entitlement toward animals. They believe that humans have the right to use animals in any way they wish, including 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 frightening or unsafe situations.

Circuses, zoos, aquatic theme parks, and other venues often exploit animals in the name of entertainment. The crowds don’t see that 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 are transported from city to city in trailers that lack climate control, and circuses often use barbaric devices to force performances, from bullwhips and chains to cattle prods.

Even zoos, which are often viewed as positive contributors to a community, can be rife with animal cruelty. Zoo animal abuse can take many forms, from starving animals to sending them to livestock operations, and this doesn’t even take into account accidents that occur 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 example.

There’s no reason for humans to prey on animals. Endless cases of animal cruelty come from factory farming, hunting, and fishing. Consider that anyone can get a hunting license — there’s no test to find out if you can shoot straight. Every year, hunters maim animals with non-lethal shots, which means those animals die slow, excruciating deaths.

Animal Testing

We have been testing products on animals for many decades. Even though 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 substances, many of which cause itching, burning, chronic pain, loss of 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.

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

what is animal cruelty by omission and commission

We can distinguish between 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, a favorite toy, or a word of praise. Negative reinforcement, by contrast, takes away something the animal wants — if the animal doesn’t perform a command, he or she won’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. Animal cruelty by commission involves adding something negative to the animal’s life, whether it’s a beating or a chemical applied in an animal testing lab.

Why Do People Treat Animals Cruelly?

why do people treat animals cruelly

People who participate in animal cruelty don’t have horns and they don’t twirl their mustaches while cackling evilly. They look like your neighbor, your friend, your teacher, or your boss. There’s no one reason for animal cruelty. It has many different causes, a lot 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.

Viewing Animals as Objects

Nonhuman animals are often viewed as objects. People who victimize animals see them not as sentient beings with emotions and needs, but merely as a means to an end.

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

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 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 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 disregard its sentient nature.

Disregarding Animals’ Feelings and Emotions

Some people believe that animals don’t truly 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 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 and 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 acknowledge when a member of their species passes on.

What Other Crimes Are Correlated With Animal Cruelty?

Animal cruelty can be linked with other crimes. Think about a person who can kick or hit a dog. Imagine what else he or she might be capable of.

Domestic Violence

Many studies have shown a correlation between domestic violence toward pets and domestic violence toward humans. 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, but the abuser is likely to hurt other members of the household.

One study determined that 88 percent of homes where child abuse was investigated 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 nonhuman 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. She was part of the investigation into Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring, and her persistent work on the connection between animal cruelty and violent offenders has inspired the law enforcement community to further examine the issue. Chicago police discovered that people who had been convicted of animal cruelty were more likely to find themselves involved in homicide investigations later on.

Law enforcement has also long linked animal abuse to psychopathy and sociopathy. People who go on to become spree or serial killers often begin with animals. Perpetrators or witnesses of violence against animals appear to be desensitized to violence against other humans. Animal cruelty seems to erode our basic moral norms against harming others.

Drug and Gun Trades

According to statistics from 2006, 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 pitbull pets who would never intentionally harm someone else. The problem lies in upbringing and training.

In many cultures, criminals own aggressive dogs as status symbols that communicate to other criminals that they shouldn’t try to get one upon them. The animals become props, used as protection from 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 trying to harm a 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.

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. Yet people can behave cruelly for a variety of reasons. An unhappy person might take out their 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 may be less obvious, and perpetrators may even defend them as in humanity’s best interest, but they are no less disastrous.

Companion Animals

Perhaps the most common victims 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. 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 their 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 most aspects of the way they care for the animals.

Chickens, cows, and other livestock can spend their entire lives in tiny cages that prevent them from moving in any direction — or even from turning around. Because the animals live in their own waste disease can proliferate quickly, and they are sometimes beaten by farmworkers. Worse still, farms frequently mutilate these animals through debeaking, dehorning, castration without anesthetic, live-plucking, and more. Pigs have rings shot through their noses so they can’t root, which prevents them from following a deeply embedded instinct that pleases them.

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 aquatic creatures are farmed more than any land animal. 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 where they’re left in the ocean.

Larger sea creatures are 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 containers with others of their own kind. They have no agency, free will, or hope.


Animal cruelty can come from numerous causes, as we’ve explored 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 homes, 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 are less convenient.

In laboratories, rats suffer significant discomfort as they’re exposed to harmful substances, diseases, and parasites. They are 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 cruelty.

Rats are also 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 types 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 any 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. Organizers collect money from attendees and facilitate betting. As we saw when the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal broke, these events aren’t as underground or as rare as one might think. In reality, they are 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 preventive 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 systematically breed animals to sell 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 can be born with congenital conditions that deplete their quality of life. They are often kept in cages with no access to play or socialization — 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 purebred 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 very idea of a “factory farm” should be abhorrent. 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 end the 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 bodies, 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 are saving these animals and treating them kindly. Their mental illness prevents 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 human and nonhuman animals.

Animal hoarders also 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. If family members, friends, and neighbors report these instances, law enforcement can intervene and the humans can receive care too.

Horse Slaughter

The United States closed all domestic horse slaughter plants in 2007, but the number of horses sent for slaughter has not decreased. These animals are simply 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 have 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 before slaughter, and the humans involved in slaughtering horses opt to protect themselves from hooves and teeth, rather than 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 a lot of mental and physical stimulation from games like Frisbee. But this doesn’t mean that all animals are happy to perform. Many are forced into the practice through cruel methods, from whips and 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 are 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. For example, lions, who naturally fear fire, are forced to jump through rings of fire for the enjoyment of clapping crowds.

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 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. For the sake of expediency, some animals are “field-stripped” in the wild, which can mean 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 are 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 probably 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 ones.

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 that 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.

The Road Ahead

Animal cruelty is real and pervasive. Ultimately,  the cause of these kinds of abuses is speciesism. Because people see animals as “less valuable” than humans, these atrocities continue to happen over and over again. It happens to many types of animals 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 are threatened, and we’ve already stolen much of their habitat for our own needs. The last thing we need to do is add to their suffering.

There is 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?