How to recognise animal abuse

In an ideal world everyone would treat their pets with respect, love and care. Sadly some people, for whatever reason, are unwilling or unable to look after their pets the way they should. As an animal lover, seeing a pet in distress is heartbreaking. Fortunately there are things that you can do.

First things first, you need to try and work out if the animal’s suffering is a result of neglect or abuse. While both make for unhappy pets they are different things and may have very different underlying causes. It is important to try to identify which is happening so you can assess the situation accurately and decide how best to proceed to prevent any further mistreatment and to keep yourself out of harm’s way.

Neglectful ownership means that the owner is failing to provide proper care to their pet in an appropriate amount of time, if at all. The very basic needs of any animal are the right to food; clean, fresh water in constant supply; a hygienic, safe place to rest; attention; space and shelter. If these most basic needs are not being met for any reason then the animal is being neglected.

The needs of animals vary greatly among individuals, breeds and species. Cats and dogs require a certain amount of basic training whereas you’d have difficulty training rabbits and goldfish! Some breeds of dog require huge amounts of exercise and as such it could be considered neglectful not to walk them as often as they need, whereas another breed might be content with fewer, shorter walks. Their needs might also change with circumstance so, for example, if an animal is injured it will require medical care. If this need is not met this, again, constitutes neglect.

An animal might be neglected for a number of reasons. The owner might be inexperienced and simply not be aware that they are not caring for their pet properly. Financial hardship of the owner could make it difficult for them to pay vet’s fees if their pet falls ill and they are uninsured. In the case of neglect it is often the case that the owner is not wilfully harming their pet.

If the pet is being neglected and the owner is a family member, friend or neighbour and you have a rapport with them then gently approach the subject in a way that won’t make them upset, defensive or angry. It may be that they have something going on that has made them unable to meet their pet’s needs, or too distracted to notice that grooming or health issues are arising. They may simply be inexperienced as a pet owner. Broach the matter delicately. Mention that you love animals and that you’d love to spend some time with theirs, either taking it for walks or popping in to socialise with them. Don’t criticise them as this might cause them to lash out at you or their pet. Be compassionate and friendly. If you are able to pick up the slack for a frazzled owner you might make all the difference.

My dog’s brother was bought by a family where the two adults in the household both worked full time. They entrusted the care of their young children and puppy, called Toby, to an au pair. What they didn’t know was that the au pair came from a country where dogs are generally outside pets. When the caregivers went to work in the mornings she would tie poor Toby to the laundry line on a short lead and only go out to him when it was time to give him his lunch and to bring him in before her employers came home. As far as she knew from her upbringing that’s how dogs were supposed to be treated and, as far as the owners knew, Toby was being properly cared for in the day; they were unaware of their au pair’s treatment of Toby and their children were too young to either notice or report on it.

In fact it wasn’t until I popped in to visit and found the sad puppy tied up in the garden that Toby’s daytime neglect was uncovered. It was then that his owners realised that maybe their schedules didn’t really allow for the commitment of a puppy. Toby lives with my grandparents now and he is a happy, friendly, loving dog… even if his manners sometimes leave a lot to be desired! He comes to visit me and his sister, Buffy, as often as he can.

Abuse, however, is deliberate mistreatment. Abuse means that the owner, or someone with access to the animal, is intentionally causing harm to them, either psychologically or physically. This includes, but is not limited to, hitting, kicking, burning or even killing the animal. Psychological mistreatment can also include keeping them in confined spaces for protracted periods or deliberately frightening them. Abusive behaviour towards animals is one of the indicators for serious conditions; it’s even one of the early signs of being a psychopath or sociopath.

For this reason it is probably not appropriate if the owner is a stranger or if the animal is being abused; sometimes people who abuse animals have violent tendencies and, as such, attempting to intervene might put you in the path of danger. Ultimately you must always be sensible and keep yourself safe.

One thing you should absolutely never do is attempt to “liberate” the animal. While it can be incredibly difficult to witness an animal suffering, to take it from its owner without permission is still theft and can only complicate matters.

If you are afraid that an animal is being abused or neglected you can contact the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999. They also have an online reporting system. If you are at all worried that a pet is being harmed, either deliberately or otherwise, you should give them a call and they can advise you.

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