Even though “a dog is a man’s best friend” and even though dogs enjoy more popularity in the United States than perhaps anywhere else in the world, dogs do not enjoy the same rights as humans do. Although it is permissible to legally kill a dog under circumstances that would not justify the killing of a human being, under other circumstances you could face criminal or civil liability.
When the Dog is Attacking a Person
It is legal in every state to kill a dog if who is in the process of attacking a person. This means that you cannot be successfully sued for killing a dog under these circumstances, and you cannot be convicted of a crime either. The only situation in which there might be a question would be if killing the dog represented a grossly disproportionate use of force against the dog under the circumstances – for example, a grown man stomps a toy poodle to death while it is nipping at his heels.
When the Dog is Attacking or Disturbing Livestock
Although the details of state laws vary, it is generally legal to kill a dog that is attacking or pursuing your livestock. In some states such as Kentucky, it is legal to kill a dog that is merely preparing to attack your livestock. Remember that “livestock” does not include pets or wild animals – only commercially valuable farm animals. In general, you may pursue a dog and kill it as long as it remains on your property, even if it is running away. You may be successfully sued, however, if you kill a dog for attacking your livestock after it leaves your property or after it has returned but is not presently threating your livestock.
When the Dog is Roaming Free or Trespassing on Your Property
It is generally illegal to kill a dog simply for roaming freely. It is illegal in some states to kill a dog simply for trespassing on your property, unless you reasonably believe that the dog is threatening people or livestock. Other states allow you to kill a trespassing dog or even to kill a dog to prevent it from trespassing. In Iowa it is even legal to kill a dog simply for not wearing a rabies vaccination tag (if one is required for the dog under state law), and in some Iowa localities a police officer is even charged with the duty to kill such dogs.
Can You Kill Your Own Dog?
Although it is permissible to kill your own dog, you may run afoul of state “cruelty to animals” laws if you kill your dog in an inhumane manner (such as by drowning, for example).
Consequences of Killing a Dog Illegally
You can be successfully sued in any state for illegally killing a dog. In a few states you can even be charged with the crime of cruelty to animals for illegally killing a pet dog without its owner’s permission. Animal cruelty laws might also come into play even for killing a stray dog if cruelty was involved.
Losing a lawsuit might mean not only paying the market value of the dog but also paying the owner an amount for infliction of emotional distress that could far exceed the commercial value of the dog. Although the penalty for cruelty to animals varies from state to state, maximum penalties typically range from six months to a year in prison, and the offense is sometimes charged as a felony.
If someone has killed your dog, or if you have been accused of killing a dog, it is likely that you will need legal assistance to maximize your chances of a successful outcome.