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  • Writer's pictureRobert Schuerger II

Animal Cruelty Laws in Tennessee - Everything to Know

It is considered a crime to abandon, mistreat, abuse, and neglect animals that are in a person's custody. This includes horses, dogs, cats, and other animals.

Overall, cruelty to animals is highly illegal in Tennessee and across the country. Many of the state's laws on animal protection deal with mistreating equine animals, service animals, and other livestock. It's important to understand the rules in Tennessee and how they might apply to the owner and others.

This article will explain the important laws pet owners should know about. Continue reading to learn more about when to hire a lawyer from Schuerger Shunnarah Trial Attorneys. They can also provide more information on dog vaccinations required by law in Tennessee.

The Laws Can Change

The Laws Can Change

States can change the laws at any time. Therefore, it's wise to check for current statutes online. Likewise, local municipalities could have specific regulations for pets like dogs and cats. Check with the city's animal control department to get data on those local rules.

Tennessee Laws for Animal Abuse and Cruelty

Animal abuse comes in several forms, and they're all criminal offenses in the state. These include:

  • Beating, torturing, badly overworking, and maiming an animal

  • Abandoning unreasonably an animal in the person's custody (abandoned animals include failing to arrange for its care for multiple days or deserting the animal)

  • Neglecting animals in ways that cause physical injury or suffering

  • Transporting and confining animals in a cruel way

  • Failing to reasonably provide clean and necessary food, shelter, and water for animals in a person's custody

If someone intentionally tortures, maims, kills, or otherwise causes a serious physical injury or death to a companion animal, Tennessee law considers it to be a crime. Aggravated cruelty to animals is always a felony.

Penalties for Cruelty to Animals in Tennessee (Wild or Abandoned Animals and a Companion Animal)

The first animal cruelty offense is considered a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail. However, if the guilty person has previous convictions for similar crimes, or if it was aggravated cruelty, it becomes a Class E felony, which carries up to six years of prison time. Likewise, the court system could require the person to enroll in an appropriate counseling or treatment program.

Failing to give water and food to a pet could also be considered a felony when the neglect created a risk to the animal's life.

Those who are convicted of pet abuse in Tennessee must always surrender custody of their pets. They might also be listed on the Tennessee animal abuse registry. Their name, offense, and photo will then be published on the Bureau of Investigations website. This site is available to the public.

If the person convicted of aggravated cruelty to animals lives with elderly individuals or children, the court will typically notify appropriate protective agencies to investigate. This is to ensure that everyone in the household is safe.

When a juvenile is found in court for conduct that might be a criminal violation involving cruelty to pets/animals if it involved an adult or might be any criminal violation involving arson, court systems could order the minor to get evaluated to see if psychiatric or psychological treatment are required and demand that the person receive that treatment.

Dog Laws in Tennessee (Dog Suffering Bodily Injury)

There are several laws that specifically focus on the abuse and mistreatment of dogs in the state. These include:

  • Abuse and Cruelty - Along with the acts above, it's considered cruelty to animals to restrain or tie up a dog (outside or inside) in a way that could cause injury. The first offense is often a misdemeanor, though a subsequent conviction is a felony.

  • Unlawful Removal of Microchips or Transmitting Collars - It's considered a Class B misdemeanor to remove a microchip or transmitting collar from a dog without an owner's consent. Likewise, only a trained professional of veterinary medicine should complete this task. If the dog gets killed or lost because of this, the person could face a Class A misdemeanor and will pay restitution to the pet's owner.

  • Dog Fighting - Tennessee has also made it a Class E felony to possess, own, use, keep, or train dogs for fighting for gain or sport. However, this doesn't apply to pets trained for hunting. Those attending a dog fight are guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

  • Aggravated Cruelty - A person commits aggravated cruelty if and when they beat, abuse, starve, torture, maim, neglect, or otherwise harm dogs in ways to cause a risk of death or serious physical injury. Anything above and beyond usual and customary practices could be considered aggravated cruelty, which is a Class E felony.


Tennessee law does exempt many kinds of legal activity from the animal cruelty laws in place. These include:

  • Hunting, fishing activities, and trapping

  • Genuine scientific research, such as in a veterinary medicine practice

  • Commonly accepted veterinary practices

  • Agricultural practices permitted (usual and customary practices)

  • Killing abandoned or wild animals on farm or residential real property

  • Killing dangerous, rabid, or diseased animals

  • Law enforcement officer acting in their official capacity to stop a dangerous or diseased animal from hurting others

Animal Control and Taking a Pet in Tennessee

Animal control officers and agents from Humane Society Incorporated are ultimately authorized to prevent acts of animal cruelty that they have witnessed. Therefore, they can seize the animal from the person's custody.

When an animal is put under the care of the humane society, the owner will be responsible for paying for that pet's care. If there is a criminal case pending, the humane society or the government could ask the judge to order that person to pay for care.

When the owner is convicted of aggravated cruelty, animal cruelty, and dog fighting, the court will order the person to surrender custody of their animal. Likewise, the judge might prohibit the person from owning another companion animal.

For dog fighting and aggravated cruelty convictions, the court is required to prevent the defendant from owning other companion animals for two years. However, the judge could impose lifetime prohibitions if they feel it is necessary.

Shooting or Killing Dogs That Trespass on the Property

It is considered theft in the state of Tennessee to kill another person's dog (or any other animal) without the owner's consent and on purpose. However, if there was a clear and immediate threat of death or serious injury to another party, it is permitted to shoot or kill a trespassing dog.

Overall, dispatching animals posing a threat to others can be considered legal, but it's ultimately wise to contact local law enforcement or animal control to take care of the matter.

If a person is convicted of killing another person's dog, the punishment depends on the animal's value. They will have to cover both the cost for the animal and any specialized training it received.

Rescuing Pets from Hot Cars

In many situations, people see animals locked in vehicles. When it is hot or extremely cold, they want to do their best to protect the animal. Tennessee and a few other states do allow a Good Samaritan to break into the locked vehicle to rescue a distressed animal. However, rescuers must do these things to protect themselves from civil lawsuits after committing those actions:

  • Call local law enforcement, 911, or the local fire department before taking action.

  • Reasonably and sincerely believe the animal is in immediate harm or danger, and there's absolutely no other option to save them

  • Stay with the animal and move to a safe place until an emergency responder or officer arrives on the scene.

  • Leave a note on the person's windshield explaining what happened and providing contact information.

  • Using no more force than needed to remove the animal from the vehicle.

Reporting Animal Abuse in the State

When one sees or hears animals that seem to be mistreated, abused, or neglected, they have a moral responsibility to contact local law enforcement, animal control, or the humane society.

Tennessee allows humane society agents to arrest those who have violated the animal protection laws in the state. Likewise, they can seize mistreated animals. Sometimes, the owner's behavior doesn't go against an ordinance or law. However, the humane society could still do something to correct the issue.

Though it is not illegal to buy animals at a pet shop or mill, it's wise to research the conditions of each location before purchasing a pet. People can contact the US Department of Agriculture to avoid puppy mills and pet shops with poor conditions.

Livestock Welfare (Usual and Customary Practices)

A healthy farm animal is vital to the agricultural business and the rural community. Tennessee has many livestock owners and farmers who focus on providing the best care to their animals. However, there might come a time when the livestock are being treated cruelly. When this happens, citizens have a duty to report it and file a complaint.

Livestock includes any farm animal that is raised for food, such as goats, swine, sheep, and cattle. However, it also means equine animals.

There are many considerations for aggravated cruelty to livestock animals, such as:

  • Setting the animal on fire

  • Burning animals with hot objects

  • Causing blunt force trauma

  • Cutting and stabbing animals with any object

  • Blinding the animal

  • Securing animals to vehicles and dragging them

  • Drowning animals

  • Electrically shocking animals

  • Skinning animals alive

  • Hanging live animals

  • Applying caustic substances and chemicals to exposed areas on animals or forcing them to drink the substances

  • Shooting animals with weapons

When any of these things are done in a depraved and sadistic manner to a farm animal, this is considered a crime. However, there may be some accepted veterinary medical practices whereby those situations might happen.

For example, branding a farm animal is acceptable as long as the brand has been registered with the Department of Agriculture. In this case (and some others), the livestock wouldn't be removed from the person's custody because it is a usual and customary practice.

As with pets, there are some exceptions to the rule. For example, it is considered legal for farmers:

  • Dispatching diseased, rabid, injured, or sick livestock animals

  • Performing and conducting scientific tests, investigations, and experiments within a bona fide research laboratory, institution, or facility

  • Dispatching livestock animals that pose an immediate threat to the safety of humans

  • Applying methods or equipment used primarily to train animals

  • Dispatching abandoned or wild livestock on a residential property or farm

  • Engaging in any usual and customary practices accepted by colleges of veterinary medicine or agriculture (with the consent of the owner)

  • Performing appropriate treatments accepted by veterinary medical practices

If a person is cruel to livestock, they could be charged with a Class E felony. This also means the defendant would be held liable for the damages and the impounding officer/agency for the costs of impoundment. Likewise, the defendant might have to forfeit their livestock animals, surrendering custody to the agency presenting that case.

Court systems can prohibit defendants from owning other livestock animals for a reasonable time period. Likewise, other reasonable restrictions could be imposed if it is necessary to protect the animals. Many times, judges also require the defendant to get psychological evaluations and counseling before being allowed to own animals again.

When to Talk to a Lawyer

When to Talk to a Lawyer

Being accused of animal cruelty can be a scary time. Likewise, some people might be worried about potential charges, especially if they broke another person's car window to save a pet in a hot car. Regardless of the issue, it's wise to speak with animal attack attorneys in Nashville like the ones at Schuerger Shunnarah Trial Attorneys. They go to war for Nash!

Overall, an experienced attorney can explain:

  • The details on state laws that apply to the case

  • How the local authorities often interpret those laws

  • The defense strategy the lawyer might use to combat those criminal charges

  • How to recover a pet if the authorities have taken it already

  • Ordinances in the local community that could apply to this specific situation

It's important to understand that one doesn't have to fight alone. Having loved pets taken away or dealing with criminal charges is worrisome. However, Schuerger Shunnarah Trial Attorneys is here to assist. Call to request a free consultation today, or fill out the confidential contact form now!


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