California outlaws many forms of animal abuse and neglect. The state also allows bystanders to rescue endangered pets from locked cars.

Cruelty to animals is illegal in California, as it is across the country. But California’s laws on the subject are extensive and detailed, covering a wide range of specific behavior, situations, and types of animals—from service dogs and racehorses to circus elephants and exotic species. Below, we’ve summarized the most important state laws that pet owners and animal lovers should know about.

  • Laws Change, and Local Rules May Apply

Because states can change their laws at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statutes, at Cal. Penal Code  596-600.5, by using this search tool. Also, local municipalities may have their own regulations on dogs and other pets. Check with your city’s animal control department for information about these local rules.

Hurting or Neglecting Pets

California’s main animal cruelty law (Cal. Penal Code § 597) makes it a crime to mistreat animals in various way, including:

  • maliciously and intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding, or killing an animal, and
  • not giving an animal proper food, drink, shelter, or protection from the weather.

The crime can be either a felony or a misdemeanor (what’s known in criminal law as a “wobbler”). Anyone who’s been convicted of animal cruelty can be charged with a separate crime if they get another pet (Cal. Penal Code § 597.9).

Abandoning Pets

It’s also a misdemeanor in California to abandon pets. One law simply says that it’s illegal to purposefully abandon an animal (Cal. Penal Code § 597s). A more general statute criminalizes leaving animals without proper care and attention in any building, enclosure, lot, street, or other public place (Cal. Penal Code § 597.1). In this case, there’s no requirement that the abandonment or neglect be purposeful. The law spells out detailed requirements for notifications and hearings before an animal is taken into custody (or afterwards, if animal control decided that prompt action was needed). It also explains what owners need to do if they want their pets back. When an owner has been convicted of this crime, the court may bar that person from having or even living with or taking care of any other animal.

Bystanders may break into locked cars if needed to rescue animals in distress.

Rescuing Pets From Hot Cars

Pet owners can be charged with a misdemeanor if they leave their animals unattended in vehicles under conditions that could be expected to result in suffering or death. Those conditions include:

  • heat or cold
  • not enough ventilation, or
  • lack of food or water.

Bystanders, as well as emergency responders (including law enforcement and animal control officers), may break into locked cars if needed to rescue animals in distress. In order to be protected from criminal charges or liability in a civil lawsuit for their actions, bystanders must:

  • sincerely and reasonably believe that an animal is in immediate danger of harm
  • contact law enforcement, the fire department, animal control, or 911 before taking action
  • use the minimum amount of force needed to break into the car if there’s no other way to rescue the animal
  • stay with the animal in a safe place nearby until an officer or other emergency responder arrives, and
  • turn the pet over to the officer.

(Cal. Penal Code § 597.7, Cal. Civil Code § 43.100.)

Confining Pets

When pet owners leave their animals confined in an enclosed space (other than a moving car), they must provide enough room to exercise. If the pets are left alone on a leash or chain, the owner must make sure that they won’t get tangled up or hurt, and that they can reach shelter, food, and water. Otherwise, the owner can be charged with a misdemeanor. (Cal. Penal Code § 597t.)

A separate law spells out the requirements when dogs are chained up or tethered. Generally, they shouldn’t be tethered to a stationary object unless it’s necessary for a temporary period while the owner is completing a certain task. Instead, the law requires use of a running line, trolley, or pulley system. Violations of these requirements are either infractions or misdemeanors. (Cal. Health & Safety Code 122335.)

Poisoning Animals

In one of its oldest laws dealing with animal abuse, California makes it a misdemeanor to poison someone else’s animal on purpose. But it’s not a crime to use poison to control predatory animals on your property, as long as you’ve posted conspicuous warning signs. In that case, you also won’t be liable if the animal’s owner sues you. (Cal. Penal Code § 596.)

Exceptions to Animal Cruelty Laws

California’s animal cruelty laws don’t affect:

  • the use of animals in authorized scientific experiments
  • the right to kill animals that are dangerous or used for food, or
  • game laws.

(Cal. Penal Code § 599c.)

Pets as Food?

California criminalizes using dogs or other pets as food. It’s a misdemeanor in the state to buy, sell, import, or export a live or dead animal that’s traditionally kept as a pet if you intend it for food. (Cal. Penal Code § 598b.)

Organized Dogfights and Cockfights

It’s a crime in California to be involved in any kind of animal fighting. In the case of dogfights, you can be charged with a felony for any kind of participation—including raising the dogs, allowing fights on your property, or even just being present at fight preparations or the fight itself, as long as you meant to watch. Involvement in other kinds of animal fighting is a misdemeanor, but it won’t be considered “aiding and abetting” the crime if you were only a spectator. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 597.5, 597b, 597c, 597i, 597j, 597m.)

How to Report Animal Abuse

If you see or hear an animal that appears to be abused, mistreated, or neglected, speak with your local city or county animal control department or humane society. Staffers at the humane society can usually tell you if local police or sheriffs are likely to act on the problem. And even if the owner’s behavior isn’t against the law, the humane society may be able to do something to correct the problem. You may also file a written complaint with law enforcement authorities. If you’re concerned about conditions at a puppy mill or pet shop, contact the nearest office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’ve been accused of animal cruelty—or you’re worried about possible charges—it’s a good idea to speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

An attorney experienced in this area should be able to explain:

  • details on relevant California laws
  • how local authorities tend to interpret those laws
  • ordinances in your local community that may apply to your situation
  • how you might recover your pet if authorities have already taken it, and
  • any defense you might have to criminal charges.

Other questions you might have for a lawyer include:

  • My neighbor keeps his dog chained up outside all day in the hot sun. The animal is clearly suffering and chews its own skin from the stress. I’ve complained to the police and animal control officials, but no one will take any action. Would it be illegal for me to rescue the dog?
  • Could I be charged with neglecting or abusing my cat because I don’t have the money for expensive vet treatment?
  • Animal control officers came in my yard and took my dog after a neighbor complained about so-called abuse. Can they do that without a warrant? How can I get my pet back?
  • I was charged with animal cruelty for poisoning my neighbor’s dog. But it wasn’t my fault: The dog got into the rat poison only after digging a hole under my fence. What can I do?