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VACTF Manual: Chapter 4 - Common Complaints

Neglected Pets


You may receive a complaint that an animal is not being fed or watered properly, not receiving medical care, not being provided with shelter, or all of the above.

These complaints are difficult to deal with because they are in the grey area - though the animal is not being subjected to outright abuse, the animal is suffering nevertheless.

Situations involving neglect generally occur because people acquired an animal on impulse and did not think through the responsibilities involved. Some examples include:

  • An owner acquired a dog as a puppy. When the puppy started to grow, the owner was unable to housebreak it, or the novelty wore off, or the dog got too big. The owner feels guilty taking the animal to the shelter; as a result, the dog is put outside and is only fed/watered when someone remembers.

  • An owner acquired a kitten, and it clawed the furniture; or it simply grew older and lost its cuteness, so it was deemed an outside cat and left to "fend for itself."

  • An owner is ignorant of how to care for an animal or has lost interest in caring for it.

The causes vary, but the results are the same: neglected animals. The way people respond to your intervention will vary from being cooperative to acting hostile.

Things to be aware of when investigating:

  • Does the animal have access to clean water in a weighted bowl that cannot overturn?

  • Does the animal appear thin? Is there any evidence that the animal has been fed recently?

  • If the animal is a dog, and there is a path worn around where he is tied or the grass is nonexistent, it's likely that he is tied out all the time.

  • Does the animal have access to shelter from the weather? If the animal is a dog, is the dog house appropriate to the size of the dog? Should this breed of dog be left outside at all? (See pg 87 in Chapter 6, Animal Care Practices for Some Common Animals, "Dogs", and pg 260 in Appendix IV, Fact Sheets and Handouts, "Dog House Plans")

  • What is the condition of the animal's coat and skin? Does it have areas where hair is missing? Is it constantly scratching at itself?

  • If the animal is a dog, how does the collar fit? It may never have been adjusted for growth. Is there room to put two fingers in between the collar and the dog's neck?

  • Does the dog have a license and a rabies tag? Dogs in VT must be licensed at 6 months and have current rabies shots (See Title 20, Chapter 193, Sections 3581 (a) and (d)). NOTE: Cats must also have a current rabies vaccination under the definition of "domestic pet".

For additional, more specific information related to animal care, see Chapter 6, Animal Care Practices For Some Common Animals and pg 264 of Appendix IV, Fact Sheets and Articles, "How to Tell if a Cat or Dog May Need Veterinary Care".

NOTE: Be aware that when you are confronting people with the condition of their pet(s), they will tend to mislead you with regard to the care the pet has received. They will deny that they have neglected the animal and create excuses for its condition. These statements may be used as evidence against them at a later date, if a criminal case is pursued. See "Common Excuses You Will Hear", starting on pg 32 of Chapter 3, Investigating an Animal Cruelty Complaint.

What to do

The way you handle the situation depends on the circumstances of the animal and how the owner responds to your intervention.

If exigent circumstances exist, seize the animal

  1. If the circumstances of the pet are desperate - animals are emaciated, collar is embedded in the dog's neck, halter is embedded in horse's neck or cheek bone - consider seizing the animal based on exigent circumstances.

  2. Call the local humane agency or animal control to transport the animal to the veterinarian.

  3. Take photographs of the animal and obtain a signed statement from the veterinarian as to the animal's condition.

  4. Interview the owner. Based on his behavior and responses, decide whether or not to bring charges.

Non-exigent circumstances

For suggestions on how to approach the situation, see chapter 3, Investigating an Animal Cruelty Complaint.

Example 1 - Lack of Shelter

The Complaint
A complainant called a local humane agency during the summer and reported that a neighbor's dog was outside constantly regardless of the weather. It had no shelter and was chained to a stake. The caller was afraid to sign a complaint.

The caller informed the investigator that another neighbor had called the dog control officer because of the dog's barking at night.

The Response

  1. The investigator observed the dog in plain view from the complainant's yard and verified that the animal had no shelter.

  2. The investigator then went to the residence and spoke to the owner's wife about the complaint and asked to see the dog. With the exception of the lack of shelter, the dog appeared to be in good health, although wild-acting because of being constantly tethered.

  3. The investigator advised the woman about the negatives of keeping a dog outside constantly, but said that if the dog was going to be kept outside, it needed a proper dog house. He stated that he would return in a week to ensure that it had been obtained. He also told her to move the dog to a shadier area, and she did.

  4. Within a week, the investigator returned. A dog house stood in the front yard, but it had not been moved to the backyard for the dog. The investigator told the woman that the dog house had to be in the backyard for use by the dog by the next day (with the entry way facing south); the investigator then asked to see the dog; the woman refused. The investigator said he would return the next day.

  5. The investigator then viewed the dog from the complainant's lot and determined that the dog was in the shade and appeared to be in good condition, but still in need of a dog house.

  6. When the investigator returned the next day, the husband was at home and stated that the dog house had been placed out back. The investigator accompanied the husband out back to ensure the dog house was in place and the dog had water available and was satisfied that the cause of the complaint had been corrected.

Charges Brought
None, because the individuals involved had cooperated.

Example 2 - Lack of Food and Shelter

The Complaint
A complainant called the local humane agency and reported that two dogs had been tied to a fence at a residence and not been fed for at least a week.

The Response

  1. The investigator went to the residence and found two emaciated dogs chained to a fence, with no food or water available. The chains were held with heavy padlocks.

  2. The investigator took photographs which he would later use for evidence.

  3. He applied for a search warrant in order to seize the dogs.

  4. He returned to the property, used bolt cutters to cut the chains, seized the dogs, and removed them to the animal shelter. He left the search warrant at the residence.

  5. The investigator returned to the residence later and issued the owner a citation for animal cruelty.

Charges Brought
The individual involved was charged with 2 counts of violating Title 13, Section 352.

Example 3 - Starving Mother and Puppies

The Complaint
A complainant called the local humane agency and reported that she had gone to a residence to buy a puppy. The complainant stated that she was shocked at the condition of the mother and four puppies at the residence and believed they were starving.

The Response

  1. The investigator went to the residence and asked to see the mother dog and puppies. She then established that the persons answering the door were the owners.

  2. The investigator determined that both the mother dog and her puppies were emaciated. The investigator asked the owners how the animals got that way. They stated that the "bitch was thin" when they acquired her and did not see anything wrong with the condition of the animals.

  3. The investigator advised them that the animals appeared to be starving and that it was against the law to starve an animal. After discussing it with the investigator, they decided to surrender the animals to the humane agency.

  4. The investigator removed the animals to the animal shelter and took photographs of them.

NOTE: If the owners had not been cooperative, the investigator could have seized the animals based on exigent circumstances and charged the owners with a violation of Title 13, Section 352.

Charges Brought
None were brought because the owners agreed to surrender the animals, and the investigators felt the individuals acted from ignorance rather than intent.

Example 4 - Multiple Animals

The Complaint
A complainant called the State Police and reported that several animals (dogs and cats) were not being fed, watered or taken care of properly at a residence. The owner had moved away several months before and left the animals behind and periodically returned to the property. Since he moved, the condition of the property and animals had deteriorated and animals were dying. It was winter weather.

The Response

  1. Two officers investigated and corroborated the statements of the complainant.

  2. Based on the complaint and their own knowledge, they obtained a search warrant to enter the premises.

  3. In addition, the officers did the following:

    1. Contacted the local animal control and humane agency to be present when the warrant was executed to remove and hold the animals.

    2. Contacted a veterinarian to be present to examine the animals and provide a sworn statement as to their condition.

  4. On the day the warrant was executed, the team entered the property, removed the animals, and took them to the local shelter. (A dead animal was also seized for evidence and an autopsy was conducted.)

  5. The officers took photographs of the animals and their surroundings at the scene. They obtained signed statements from the veterinarian as to the state of each animal.

  6. The officers then obtained an arrest warrant for the missing owner.

Charges Brought
The individual involved was arrested and the DSA charged 6 counts of violating Title 13, Section 352.

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