The FBI Reports crimes of animal cruelty as a separate offense; more comprehensive statistics on animal abuse to come


Animal lovers recognize that our animal companions intrinsically deserve protection and a good quality of life, one that is worth living day in and day out. However, crimes against animals are also a societal harm. Thanks to the work of the National Sheriffs' Association, the Animal Welfare Institute and others, the FBI has agreed to change how animal cruelty data is tracked.

Until recently, crimes against animals have been recorded as crimes against property ( a "Type B" offense) in the Uniform Crime Report, the most comprehensive source of crime statistics in the United States. Since January 1, 2016, animal cruelty is reported in a distinct category, along with major offenses like murder, sexual assault and arson crimes.

Under the changes, animal cruelty (NIBRS offense code 720) is considered a crime against society, a “Type A” offense with four (NIBRS data element 12) categories :

  • A - Simple/gross neglect
  • I - Intentional abuse and torture,
  • F - Organized abuse (eg dog fighting, cock fighting)
  • S - Animal sexual abuse 

One important consideration is that Type A offenses are recorded whenever they are identified and reported; type B offenses only get recorded if an arrest is made. According to the FBI, the official definition of animal cruelty is:

Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment. Included are instances of duty to provide care, e.g., shelter, food, water, care if sick or injured; transporting or confining an animal in a manner likely to cause injury or death; causing an animal to fight with another; inflicting excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering, e.g., uses objects to beat or injure an animal. This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing or trapping.

The Link Between Animal Cruelty & Community Violence

The FBI takes the collection of animal abuse data seriously because people who deliberately harm animals are more likely to be associated with other forms of violence. Families where criminal harm to animals is occurring may be in desperate need of social services or other interventions.

In the domestic violence setting, animal abuse is not a problem with anger management, but rather a method to exert power and maintain control over victims. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), domestic violence comes in many forms, including physical, sexual, and emotional violence and threats. Killing, harming, or threatening to harm animals are weapons used by abusers to manipulate victims into silence and to destroy the comfort animal companions provide.

Children who witness animal abuse may become desensitized to all forms of violence. Some instances of animal abuse are explorations in "dirty play" and do not necessarily indicate the beginnings of antisocial personality. However, the abuse of an animal by a child is still an illegal activity. The abused animal needs help,  and this activity could be a "red flag" that the child also needs help. When children are cruel to animals it could be the beginning of conduct disorder, an act of revenge or a gang initiation. It is also a way for an abused child who feels powerless to exert control over his or her own victim and gain a sense of power. 

Senior citizens may be at risk of not being able to care for their animals adequately, of neglecting themselves in order to care for their pets, of being exploited by those who would take advantage of their attachment to pets, or of keeping too many animals in inhumane hoarding conditions. 

Animal abuse is often the first outwardly visible sign an individual or a family is in trouble. Identifying cases of animal abuse or neglect, and bringing these cases forward in the criminal justice system may provide relief of both animal and human suffering, and bring both punitive and healing interventions to those involved. Because of increasing awareness of this link between intentional harm to animals and violence to people, more states are mandating that veterinarians report suspicions of animal cruelty.

These societal and legal changes are creating an increasing demand for veterinary forensics skills; veterinarians with forensic training are able to identify, document these cases appropriately, and make important contributions to the legal system. All veterinarians are encouraged to report animal cruelty when they suspect it, and veterinarians in Massachusetts are mandated to report suspicions of animal abuse.