Bay Area Animal Abuse Lawyers

Last Modified: June 18, 2024

Bay Area Animal Abuse Lawyers



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What is the offense of animal abuse?

There are a number of laws that criminalize animal abuse and neglect in California. In fact, California has some of the strictest animal protection laws in America. One of the main, general provisions preventing animal cruelty, abuse, and neglect is found in California Penal Code 597. Under that section, it is illegal to:

  • maliciously and intentionally:
    • maim,
    • mutilate,
    • torture, or
    • wound a living animal.
  • maliciously and intentionally kill an animal.
  • overwork or overload an animal.
  • deprive any animal of necessary food, water, or shelter.
  • cruelly beat, mutilate, or kill an animal.
  • subject any animal to needless suffering, or inflict unnecessary cruelty.

The laws against animal abuse, cruelty, and neglect apply to all kinds of animals, and to both owners and anyone else who has care or custody of an animal. There are many more specific animal abuse offenses in the Penal Code, some of which we will outline below. But Penal Code 597 is so broad as to cover the majority of criminal instances of animal abuse.

Animal abuse cases can receive a lot of public attention – and the people who are accused of it are often publicly shamed. The kind of condemnation that accused people face is based on the idea that animals are under human care and deserve our protection because they are unable to protect and defend themselves. And while it is undoubtedly true that animal abuse happens, political pressure and the attention of animal activist organizations mean that the authorities can be hasty and overzealous in their prosecutions.

At Summit Defense Attorneys, we know that innocent people can be caught up in the move to protect animals. But we act to ensure that the full story is presented in your case, not just the one-sided police report against you. These charges can be prosecuted as felonies and expose defendants to very serious consequences, including prison time, lengthy probation, fines, and a permanent criminal conviction. We protect our client’s rights in any prosecution, reduce their exposure to the most serious penalties, and fight against them being unjustly vilified and convicted.

What if I go to court without a lawyer?

Having a lawyer is not only your right, but your best chance of fighting the case against you. Summit Defense Attorneys have handled many animal abuse cases where we have been able to influence the process by presenting mitigating evidence to the DA to have charges dismissed or reduced. In every case, our priority is full dismissal of the charges against you.

Keep in mind that many animal abuse charges can be filed as felonies, which means that the court can impose harsh penalties. And, given the one-sided attitude that the authorities have in these cases, they can be particularly challenging to defend. You need an expert criminal defense lawyer on your side – we will begin preparing your case immediately, collect evidence, and work to protect your reputation. Our reputation as winning trial attorneys means that we are often successful in persuading the DA to dismiss charges at the pre-file stage. And if your case does go to trial, we will make sure that the judge and jury get the full picture.

Is animal abuse a felony or a misdemeanor?

In California, many animal abuse offenses, including Penal Code 597 offenses, are ‘wobblers’. This means they can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The Prosecutor will make that decision based on the exact circumstances of the accusations against you, as well as any criminal record that you may have. This is why we emphasize the importance of the work we are able to do at the pre-file stage – we are often able to present evidence and arguments that influence the Prosecutor’s decision about which charges to file, or whether to file charges at all.

What evidence will the Prosecutor use to try to prove a charge of animal abuse against me?

To establish a charge of animal abuse or cruelty under Penal Code 597(a), the Prosecutor needs to prove the following elements beyond reasonable doubt:

  1. that you maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed a living animal; and
  2. that you did so maliciously and intentionally.

Maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed

The prosecution must establish that you did one, or more, of these things to the animal. These words carry their ordinary meanings, but some definitions are included in the California Criminal Jury Instructions:

‘Torture’ means “every act, failure to act, or neglect that causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable physical pain or suffering.” ‘Maiming’ means “disabling or disfiguring an animal permanently or depriving it of a limb, organ, or other part of the body.”[1]

Maliciously and intentionally

To satisfy this element, the Prosecutor must prove that you had a particular state of mind when the animal was harmed, and that you did the act on purpose. To do something ‘maliciously’ means to intentionally do a wrongful act, or do an act with the “unlawful intent to disturb, annoy, or injure an animal.”[2]

Consider a case where someone driving a car runs over a dog in the street. If the driver saw the dog, and sped up to make sure that they hit the dog, and then drove off, it may be easy to say that they maliciously and intentionally harmed the dog. However, what if the driver was momentarily distracted by their child in the back seat of the car, and didn’t see the dog wander on to the road? The driver swerves to try to avoid the dog, but still hits it. The driver stops the car, and goes to try and help the dog. In that case, even though the driver has harmed the dog, it was not done maliciously or on purpose at all – so they would not be guilty of the offense.

The difference between abuse and neglect.

The offenses under Penal Code 597(a) concern abuse of animals – that is, when someone inflicts some kind of physical harm to an animal. There are further offenses, under Penal Code 597(b) and 597(c), that are generally concerned with the neglect of animals – that is, acts such as depriving them of food, drink, shelter, protection from the weather, as well as overworking or overloading an animal or using it when it is unfit for work. An example of an offense of animal neglect would be if someone went away on a 2-week vacation, and left their dog tied up in the backyard with no access to fresh water or food.

‘Cruelty’ is also an element of several of the offenses under Penal Codes 597(b) and (c) – such as inflicting unnecessary cruelty on any animal, or cruelly beating an animal. This refers to someone willfully harming or neglecting an animal, or causing some kind of pain or suffering, without concern for the animal. An example of an offense that involves cruelty can be found in the case of People v. Burnett (2003)[3], which took place in San Jose. The defendant was angry at the driver of the car behind him for tapping his car with her bumper, and took her dog from inside her car and threw him onto the road where he was run over and killed.

Other animal abuse offenses.

Within the California Penal Code, there are many other specific animal abuse and neglect offenses besides the more general provisions under Penal Code 597. However, the same criminal acts are often covered by both a specific offense, as well as the general PC 597 provisions. For example, dogfighting is an offense under Penal Code 597.5, but many of the acts involved in keeping dogs for fighting, and making dogs fight, would also be illegal under PC 597. This means that the Prosecutor can usually choose which provision/s a defendant is charged under – and they will usually prefer the ones that have the highest potential penalty.

Bull, bear, and cock fighting

Under Penal Code 597b(a) and (b), it is illegal to cause any bull, bear, cock (or any other animal) to fight for amusement or gain. These kinds of animal fights usually involve people organizing fights between two animals, where crowds gather to watch and place bets on the outcome. Besides being forced to fight, these events usually involve particular cruelty to the animals. In cockfighting, for example, the birds are fitted with small blades on their feet, called gaffs, which mean that they stab each other when they fight. The result is that both birds are often so severely injured by the end of the fight that they die, or are killed.

Other related offenses include:

  • being a spectator at these fights under Penal Code 597c;
  • making, selling, buying, or exchanging gaffs, or any other weapons commonly used in cockfights, under Penal Code 597i; and
  • keeping or training a bird, or other animal, for fighting, under Penal Code 597j.

Under Penal Code 597d, in any case of cockfighting, or other animal fights, the police are allowed to enter the premises without a warrant and arrest anyone present. These offenses are all misdemeanors, but on a second or subsequent conviction for cockfighting or animal fighting, the offense can be elevated to a felony.


The offense of dogfighting is treated more seriously than other kinds of animal fighting. It is a felony under Penal Code 597.5(a), and it is illegal to:

  • own, keep, or train a dog with the intent that it be used in dogfighting;
  • cause any dog to fight with another dog, or injure another dog, for amusement or gain; or
  • to allow any kind of dogfighting, or training for dogfighting, etc, to occur on premises that you own or have the care and control of.

Being a spectator at a dogfight is a misdemeanor offense under Penal Code 597.5(b). As is the case with other kinds of animal fighting, Penal Code 597d empowers the police to enter the premises and make arrests without a warrant.

Failure to control a mischievous animal

Under Penal Code 399, it is an offense to cause injury or death by failing to maintain control of a mischievous animal. If the animal kills someone, the defendant is charged with a felony, and if the animal injures someone, the defendant can be charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor. The most common examples of this offense involve dogs which are not properly contained or controlled by their owners, and attack someone.

The definition of a ‘mischievous’ animal was discussed in the San Mateo case of Sea Horse Ranch Inc. v. Superior Court (1994)[4], where it was declared that animals such as horses, sheep, and cows are not, by their nature, mischievous. Rather, the Court said that a mischievous animal “must be such in the abstract: the very nature of the beast, as it were, puts the owner on notice that it must be confined lest it injure others.”

A related offense that deals specifically with the ownership and control of attack dogs is found in Penal Code 399.5, which can be dealt with as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Under that section, it is an offense to fail to use ordinary care in owning or controlling an attack dog, which allows the dog to bite someone.

Animal in unattended vehicle

It is illegal to leave an animal in an unattended vehicle, pursuant to Penal Code 597.7. That section states that it is an offense to leave any animal alone in a vehicle “under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.”

A conviction for a first offense is punishable by a fine of up to $100, as long as the animal did not suffer great bodily injury. However, if the animal does so suffer, or the defendant has a previous conviction under this section, the penalties increase to include larger fines, and jail time. It is important to keep in mind that this kind of behavior may also be seen as animal neglect, so a defendant could also be charged with a more serious offense under Penal Code 597.

The section also allows for any police officer, peace officer, humane officer, or animal control officer to take “all steps that are reasonably necessary” to get the animal out of the vehicle, and take it to a shelter to be properly cared for, if they witness any animal unattended and suffering.

Sexual abuse of animals

Sexual activity with animals – often known as ‘bestiality’ – is a misdemeanor under Penal Code 286.5. This offense involves the defendant sexually abusing an animal with the intent of arousing or gratifying his or her own sexual desires. And although the statute includes the word ‘abuse’, the actions of the defendant do not have to be violent or force the animal to do anything. Rather, any kind of sexual activity with an animal is an offense.

Poisoning an animal

This is an offense under Penal Code 596, which makes it illegal to administer poison to an animal, or to leave any poisonous substance exposed with the intent that an animal will consume it.

The law does not completely outlaw baiting, however. If someone wishes to leave poison out on their land to control or destroy predatory animals, or dogs that kill livestock, then there are rules that require them to post warning signs.

Transporting in cruel or inhumane manner

Under Penal Code 597a, it is illegal to transport any domestic animal in a cruel or inhumane manner, or in a way that subjects it to unnecessary suffering or torture.

Pet store conditions

The conditions under which animals should be kept in pet stores are controlled under Penal Code 597l. This includes requirements such as providing proper sanitation, heating or cooling, nutrition, and space.

Confining so as to injure, become entangled, and/or have no access to food or water

Under Penal Code 597t, it is an offense to confine animals in harmful ways. This includes in ways where they may injure themselves, become entangled by leashes or ropes, and not have proper access to food or water.

Farm animal cruelty

In November 2008, Californians voted on Proposition 2 to create laws that protected certain farm animals. The majority of the laws that were created pursuant to that Proposition will come into effect in January 2015, under the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. The main provisions of these laws control how calves raised for veal, pregnant pigs, and egg-laying hens, can be caged or confined. The law will also require anyone who sells eggs in California to certify that they were produced in accordance with these laws.

What defenses can I use to fight an animal abuse charge?

I didn’t do it!

Maybe there was no abuse or neglect of an animal at all, or maybe you have been wrongly accused of an offense – Summit Defense Attorneys knows that in any kind of criminal case, false or incorrect accusations and cases of mistaken identity occur. If you have been accused of an offense that you did not commit, we will work to clear your name.

In one case that we handled, our client returned home from a long weekend trip only to be charged with neglect of the family dog. His neighbor had heard the dog barking and whining for two days before calling the police, who found that no one was home and the dog had no food or water. They took the dog to a local shelter, and booked our client once he was back from his holiday.

In this case, however, the wrong person was charged with the offense – our client had spoken to a friend, and given them keys to the house, so as the dog could be cared for while he was away. This person had attended the house on the first morning, and given the dog some more water and food. The person did not return the following day, and the dog had tipped over his water bowl as well, meaning he had no more water to drink. We spoke to the owner’s friend, who agreed that they had the keys but hadn’t gone back to the house in the following days, because he thought he’d given the dog enough food and water to last. Once we obtained this evidence, and were able to take all of the information to the DA, we were able to persuade them not to file charges against our client.

It was an accident!

Most animal abuse offenses require the Prosecutor to prove that the defendant acted with some kind of malice, negligence, or intent. This means that, if the actions that harmed the animal were accidental, then the defendant cannot be found guilty. However, in many cases, the simple fact of an animal being harmed or killed is enough for the police to charge someone with an offense.

Keep in mind that it is the Prosecutor that has the burden of proving that any act was committed on purpose. A good criminal defense lawyer will investigate the true cause of the incident, and also ensure that the prosecution meets their burden of proof. In many cases that we have dealt with, the Prosecutor is unable to prove that the defendant acted with malice, or negligently. In other cases, we are able to bring evidence to the attention of the Prosecutor to demonstrate that the incident was really an accident.

For example, in one case, our client was charged with failing to control his dog properly when his dog escaped from his yard and bit someone. However, our client was adamant that he was aware of the law and made sure that his fences and gates were always in good repair, and high and strong enough to contain his dog. He was especially sure of this because he sometimes worked long hours and wasn’t always home to monitor his dog.

Our client lived next to a park where a lot of children played, and people took their dogs to play. Sometimes, when a ball was accidentally thrown over the fence, someone would try to get into our client’s yard to retrieve it – this was even though he had a dog, and had posted signs on the gate about the dog being dangerous! We were able to speak to neighbors who told us that they had seen kids open the gate several times in pursuit of their balls – before running away when the dog started barking. Once we took this information to the DA, we were able to make it clear to them that there was no way that they would be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it was our client’s fault that his dog had been able to escape from his yard. This is because the Prosecutor would not be able to prove that it was not some other person who had – accidentally or otherwise – left the gate open. In the circumstances, the DA was persuaded to withdraw the charges.

Insufficient evidence and reasonable doubt

If there is any element of the offense that they cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt, then the defendant must be found not guilty. This is one of the most fundamental tenets of the criminal justice system, and Summit Defense Attorneys will always insist on holding the prosecution to this standard of proof.

In many animal abuse cases, the matter is reported to police via a neighbor, some other member of the public, or an organization that monitors animal welfare. In some cases, those concerned citizens rightly report matters of abuse and neglect. In other cases, however, they do not have the full picture of what has happened, or they do not actually know who is responsible for the animal. In those kinds of situations, and where a proper investigation is not done by the police, it can be easy for charges to be filed based on the word of only one, maybe two, other people.

However, a lack of evidence does not always stop charges being filed. You need an experienced attorney on your side who will ensure that the prosecution meet their burden of proving any charge beyond reasonable doubt, and will not let baseless charges stand.

A lack of evidence, or a lack of evidence strong enough to support a charge beyond reasonable doubt, is one of the most common defenses relied upon. As demonstrated by the case of our client whose dog escaped from his yard, described above, the police do not always present a case that tells the full story. If the evidence that the Prosecutor is relying upon in your case is not adequate, Summit Defense Attorneys will challenge the prosecution case and make sure that you are not unjustly convicted.

I was acting in self-defense/defense of another!

Self-defense laws apply to cases where:

  • you are defending an animal from being hurt by another animal; or
  • where you are defending yourself against an animal that is, or that you are afraid is about to, attack you.

The law of self-defense is the same in cases that involve animals as those that involve people – that is, once the defendant has raised the issue of self-defense, the Prosecutor must prove that they were NOT acting in self-defense, or the defendant must be found not guilty. As set out in the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, the law provides that a defendant acted in lawful self-defense if:

  1. The defendant reasonably believed that they were in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or of being touched unlawfully;
  2. The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  3. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.[5]

So, for example, imagine you are walking on the street with your small dog when a large dog comes running toward you, viciously barking and growling, and with its teeth bared. You may be very afraid that the dog is going to hurt you, or your dog, and you cannot see the dog’s owner anywhere. If you were to pick up a large stick and use it to hit the dog, keep it away, and defend yourself and your pet, you would not be guilty of harming or hurting the dog, because you were acting in self-defense.


What are the penalties for animal abuse?

The penalties in animal abuse and neglect cases vary widely because of the many different acts that are criminalized, and the very different kinds of behavior that a defendant may be accused of. There are also several offenses that specifically provide for more serious penalties for multiple offenses, or in cases where someone already has a previous conviction for the same or similar offense. All of these factors will affect the severity of the penalty imposed.

Of course, you only have to be concerned about the penalty for any offense if you are actually convicted. At Summit Defense, we do everything possible to avoid a conviction – our aim is always the complete dismissal of all charges against you. If, despite our best efforts, you are convicted of an offense of animal abuse, we are experts in minimizing the consequences faced by our clients. In many cases we can:

  • get charges reduced to lesser offense/s;
  • achieve a sentence of a short probation period, or only a fine;
  • seek jail alternatives;
  • enroll our clients in diversion programs.

The main animal abuse offenses in California, under Penal Code 597, are ‘wobblers’. This means that they can be filed as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the seriousness of the conduct and any criminal history of the defendant. If a PC 597 offense is charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalties are:

  • one year in county jail;
  • a fine of up to $20,000; or
  • both a fine and jail time.

If the offense is charged as a felony, the maximum penalties are:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in State prison;
  • a fine of up to $20,000; or
  • both a fine and time in prison.

The maximum penalties for the various other animal abuse and neglect offenses vary widely. If you are facing any animal abuse allegations, you should seek legal advice to determine the exact penalties that you are exposed to in your particular case.

Keep in mind, however, that these are the maximum possible penalties. In all cases, the judge will consider various factors before passing sentence. These include the nature of the offense itself and any criminal history, and the specific circumstances of each case. Some of the things that the judge will consider are known as aggravating and mitigating circumstances – these are factors that might either increase (aggravate) or decrease (mitigate) the eventual sentence.

There are some common factors that can occur in animal abuse and neglect cases – for example, if you have cared for your animals or pets well for a long time and this was a one-off incident, then your attorney may persuade the judge to take that into account as a mitigating circumstance. On the other hand, if the offense was committed repeatedly, or over the course of a long period of time, then that might be considered an aggravating circumstance. But every case is different and every defendant is unique – the expert attorneys at Summit Defense know how to put together a positive case on sentencing that brings together as many mitigating circumstances as possible, and reduces the negative effect of any aggravating circumstances.


[1] Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, Instruction 2953.

[2] Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, Instruction 2953.

[3] People v. Burnett (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 868.

[4] Sea Horse Ranch Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 446

[5] Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, Instruction 3470.

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