Defining Animal Cruelty

How do we define animal abuse?

Throughout this site we will refer to nonhuman animals as “animals” for simplicity. When we define animal cruelty, we are faced with a task in many ways more difficult than defining human abuse. Attitudes and actions toward animals require cross-cultural comparisons with perspective on the value placed on animals. Cruelty toward animals is not easily defined. Are we referring to farm animals who might be considered a food source for humans, animals used in research, wildlife, animals maintained in zoological parks or circuses, assistance animals, or companion animals?



Dr. Frank Ascione has defined animal abuse as “…non-accidental, socially unacceptable behavior that causes pain, suffering or distress to and/or the death of a vertebrate animal.” [revision of Ascione, 1993]

The specific elements of criminal animal cruelty can be found in Colorado Revised Statute 18-9-202. The following excerpt outlines the main components of the statute:

“A person commits cruelty to animals if he or she knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence overdrives, overloads, overworks, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, unnecessarily or cruelly beats, allows to be housed in a manner that results in chronic or repeated serious physical harm, carries or confines in or upon any vehicles in a cruel or reckless manner, engages in a sexual act with an animal, or otherwise mistreats or neglects any animal, or causes or procures it to be done, or, having the charge or custody of any animal, fails to provide it with proper food, drink, or protection from the weather consistent with the species, breed, and type of animal involved, or abandons an animal.”

In Colorado statutes, the following legal definitions apply:

  • “Mistreatment” means every act or omission that causes or unreasonably permits the continuation of unnecessary or unjustifiable pain or suffering.
  •  “Neglect” means failure to provide food, water, protection from the elements, or other care generally considered to be normal, usual and accepted for an animal’s health and well-being consistent with the species, breed and type of animal.