Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-9-202 makes cruelty to animals a criminal offense. This is broadly defined as abusing, neglecting, or abandoning an animal for which you have personal responsibility.
Prosecutors can file this charge as
- a misdemeanor or
- a felony, and
- a conviction can carry up to 18 months of jail or prison on a first offense.
Section 18-9-202 reads that:
“(1) (a) A person commits cruelty to animals if he or she knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence overdrives, overloads, overworks, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, unnecessarily or cruelly beats, allows to be housed in a manner that results in chronic or repeated serious physical harm, carries or confines in or upon any vehicles in a cruel or reckless manner, engages in a sexual act with an animal, or otherwise mistreats or neglects any animal, or causes or procures it to be done, or, having the charge or custody of any animal, fails to provide it with proper food, drink, or protection from the weather consistent with the species, breed, and type of animal involved, or abandons an animal. (b) Any person who intentionally abandons a dog or cat commits the offense of cruelty to animals.”
- Taking a pet dog into the woods and leaving it there to fend for itself
- Starving a pet cat by withholding food and water
- Leaving a pet hamster outside in winter
- Beating a workhorse with a pipe
- Bestiality with livestock
A first-time offense of animal abuse is a misdemeanor. The sentence includes:
- Up to 364 days in county jail, and/or
- $500 to $1,000 in fines.
However, the court typically imposes anger management instead of jail. But the court may order the forfeiture of animals involved in the case.
Aggravated animal cruelty – severe, intentional mistreatment – is always a felony.
Common defense strategies to CRS 18-9-202 charges are:
- The incident was an accident;
- The defendant acted in self-defense; or
- The police performed an illegal search and seizure
Below our Denver Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss:
- 1. What is Colorado’s legal definition of animal cruelty?
- 2. What is aggravated animal cruelty?
- 3. What are the penalties under CRS 18-9-202?
- 4. What are ways to fight the charges?
- 5. How does it affect immigration?
- 6. Can I get a record sealed?
- 7. Is animal fighting the same as cruelty?
- 8. How do I report animal cruelty in Colorado?
1. What is Colorado’s legal definition of animal cruelty?
“Cruelty to animals” comprises all forms of
- neglect, or
This includes behavior that is
- reckless, or
- merely negligent.
Specifically, animal cruelty is doing any of the following ten things to a wild or domestic animal:
- Torturing or needlessly killing;
- Overworking or overloading;
- Depriving necessary sustenance;
- Unnecessarily or cruelly beating;
- Housing in a hazardous way;
- Carrying or confining in or upon a vehicle in a cruel or reckless way;
- Engaging in a sex act;
- Failing to provide weather protection; or
- Abandoning (including intentionally abandoning a dog or cat)
Defendants face a separate charge for each animal they allegedly abused.1 So if a person is accused of neglecting two dogs, that person would face two separate cruelty charges.
1.1. Federal PACT Act
In 2019, Congress passed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT). PACT prohibits intentional animal crushing. “Crushing” means:
- Causing other serious harm
PACT also prohibits making or distributing “animal crushing” photographs or videos.
A person faces federal government charges under PACT if their actions affect interstate commerce.2 An example is selling an animal crush video over the internet.
2. What is aggravated animal cruelty?
The Colorado crime of aggravated cruelty to animals is when a person knowingly:
- Tortures an animal;
- Needlessly mutilates an animal; or
- Needlessly kills an animal
In short, aggravated animal cruelty is particularly egregious mental or physical mistreatment and extreme pain. As discussed below, it carries harsher punishments than ordinary animal cruelty.3
See our related article, When is animal cruelty treated as “aggravated” in Colorado?
3. What are the penalties under CRS 18-9-202?
Colorado’s punishment for animal cruelty turns on whether:
- The court finds that cruelty was “aggravated”; and
- The defendant has prior convictions of violating 18-9-202 CRS.
Note that an animal victim of a violation of section 18-9-202 of the CRS may be impounded by an animal control officer and ultimately put down.
Animal cruelty offense
Colorado court sentences*
|Animal cruelty|| |
Second or subsequent conviction
The court may instead impose probation instead of prison as an appropriate sentence. But this would include at least 90 days in jail or home detention as a condition of probation.
|Aggravated animal cruelty|| |
Class 6 felony:
Second or subsequent conviction
|*Defendants may have to forfeit their animals. And if the animal was a service animal or certified police working dog, they may have to pay restitution for veterinary bills, replacement costs, training, and/or certification costs.|
Prior to sentencing, the court orders an evaluation. It helps assist the court in determining the sentence. Defendants pay for the evaluation unless they qualify for a public defender.
Not all defendants must undergo an evaluation. Evaluations are not required if the charges stem from either:
- The treatment of pack or draft animals. And the defendant is accused of negligently overworking them;
- The treatment of livestock. And the defendant’s treatment aligns with accepted agricultural animal husbandry practices and agricultural products for animals;
- The treatment of racing animals regulated under CRS 12-60;
- The treatment of research animals. And the facility is operating under state or federal laws;
- The treatment of rodeo animals;
- The treatment of dogs used for legal hunting activities;
- Wildlife nuisances; or
- Wildlife and predator control, including trapping
Defendants ordered to complete a treatment program have a financial incentive. Upon successful completion, the court may suspend the fine except for the minimum amount.4
Example: Shelly gets convicted of cruelty to animals as a first-offense for mistreating her dog, causing it to become a dangerous dog that needs to be put down. The judge decides not to order any jail. Instead, the judge fines her the maximum amount of $1,000. ($500 is the minimum for a first-time offense.) Following an evaluation, the court orders Shelly to complete anger management. If Shelly finishes the program, the court may suspend $500 of the fine. She would still need to pay the $500 mandatory minimum fine.
3.1. Federal penalties
Violating the PACT Act is a felony. The punishment for the offense of cruelty to animals is:
- Up to 7 years in Federal Prison, and/or
- A fine5
4. What are ways to fight the charges?
The best way to fight charges of cruelty to animals turns on the facts of the case.
Ten common defenses are:
- The injury was an accident;
- The defendant did not realize the animal was at risk of harm. And the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable.
- Someone made a false report accusing the defendant;
- There is no factual basis that anything the defendant did constitutes cruelty.
- The animal was sick or injured by unknown causes. Any further harm followed from the defendant’s good faith attempts to help;
- The animal attacked the defendant. And the defendant acted in reasonable self-defense.
- The animal was used for livestock, research, a rodeo, or hunting. And the defendant complied with applicable laws and/or industry practices;
- The defendant was trapping wildlife. And it was in line with Colorado law;
- The police entrapped the defendant. The defendant was not predisposed to harming animals. And the defendant never would have hurt the animal but for the police’s actions. (This is an affirmative defense, which means that the burden is on the D.A. to prove there was no entrapment.); or
- A peace officer discovered the animal from an illegal search and seizure or had no probable cause to arrest the defendant.
Typical evidence in animal cruelty cases includes:
- Veterinary records
- Surveillance video and photographs
- Expert veterinary testimony regarding the animal’s health
5. How does it affect immigration?
Animal cruelty is deportable.6 This means non-citizens convicted of it face removal from the U.S.
Immigrants in criminal cases should seek legal counsel. Perhaps the district attorney may be willing to negotiate. Learn more about the criminal defense of immigrants in Colorado.
6. Can I get a record sealed?
Convictions are potentially sealable three years after the case ends. But dismissals can be sealed right away.7
Learn more about Colorado record seal laws.
7. Is animal fighting the same as cruelty?
No. Animal fighting is a separate offense under CRS 18-9-204. The statute prohibits animal fights for entertainment or monetary gain. The most common examples are dog fights and cock (rooster) fights.
People who hold, sponsor, or encourage animal fights face prosecution. And the penalties are harsher than those for animal cruelty. Learn more about animal fighting (CRS 18-9-204).
8. How do I report animal cruelty in Colorado?
Go to Colorado’s Bureau of Animal Protection (BAP) website. Then click on the county where the abuse occurred, and the phone number of the local Humane Society or Sheriff’s Office will appear.
Or call Colorado’s Humane Society directly at (720) 913-7867 (STOP), or text 274637 (CRIMES), or fill out its online complaint form. The Colorado Human Society is open on Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM with the exception of major holidays. But it is open 24/7 for emergencies. If you have additional questions, call the Human Society at (720) 241-7111. It investigates allegations of animal cruelty in accordance with the Animal Protection Act §35-42-101, et seq.
In Denver, people can report animal abuse anonymously to Metro Denver Crime Stoppers. People who report tips that lead to an arrest or citation may receive a reward of up to $2,000.
People should call their local animal control agency with questions about pet vaccinations, spay/neuter laws, barking ordinances, pet licenses, and running at large.
Arrested for cruelty to animals in Colorado? An alleged violation of any criminal law can have dire consequences. Contact our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys at 303-222-0330. We will fight to have the charges reduced or dismissed so you can keep your pet animals.
Colorado Legal Defense Group
4047 Tejon Street
Denver, CO 80211
To report animal abuse, contact a local law enforcement agency, the local Animal Control, the Colorado Humane Society, the Bureau of Animal Protection, or another organization that champions animal welfare and well-being. To adopt, contact the Denver Dumb Friends League.
Arrested in California? See our article on California animal abuse laws (597 PC).
Arrested in Nevada? See our article on Nevada animal cruelty laws (NRS 574).
- People v. Harris (2016) 405 P.3d 361 (Colorado Court of Appeals, Division 2, 2016)(“A person commits cruelty to animals if he or she recklessly or with criminal negligence tortures, needlessly mutilates, or needlessly kills an animal.”). See also CRS 35-42-109 – Protection of animals mistreated, neglected, or abandoned.
(1) No animal shall be mistreated or neglected to such degree or abandoned in any circumstance so that the animal’s life or health is endangered.
(2)(a) The commissioner may take charge of, provide for, or remove from the area or building where found any companion animal found to be mistreated or neglected to such degree or abandoned in any circumstance so that the animal’s life or health is endangered. The commissioner shall petition any court of competent jurisdiction for a prompt hearing to determine whether the owner, if known, is able to adequately provide for the animal and is a fit person to own the animal.
(b) Pursuant to court order, the commissioner may take charge of, provide for, or remove from the area or building where found any livestock found to be mistreated or neglected to such degree or abandoned in any circumstance so that the animal’s life or health is endangered. The commissioner shall petition any court of competent jurisdiction for a prompt hearing to determine whether the owner, if known, is able to adequately provide for the animal and is a fit person to own the animal.
(3)(a) The commissioner shall cause to be served upon the owner:
(I) If the owner is known and residing within the jurisdiction wherein the animal is found, written notice at least five days prior to the hearing of the time and place of the hearing;
(II) If the owner is known but residing out of the jurisdiction where such animal is found or if the commissioner is unable after reasonable attempts to serve the owner, written notice by any method, including posting at least five days prior to the hearing at a place provided for public notices in the jurisdiction wherein such hearing shall be held, or service of process shall be given.
(b) If the owner is not known, the commissioner shall cause to be published, in a newspaper of general circulation in the jurisdiction wherein such animal is found, notice of the hearing, and shall further cause notice of the hearing to be posted at a place provided for public notices in the jurisdiction wherein such hearing shall be held, at least five days prior to the hearing.
(4) Such hearing shall be held promptly after the date of the seizure of the animal.
(5)(a) The commissioner may, in his discretion, provide for such animal until judgment by the court.
(b) The court may order the animal sold and the proceeds deposited in the registry of the court pending a decision.
(c) The court may adjudge that the owner is a person able to adequately provide for such animal and a person fit to own the animal, in which case the animal shall be returned to the owner after all reasonable expenses of any food, shelter, and care provided by the commissioner have been paid; except that, if such expenses are not paid within ten days of a court order adjudging the owner a person able to adequately provide for such animal and a person fit to own the animal, the commissioner may, in his discretion and without liability, dispose of the animal by selling it at public auction, placing it for adoption in a suitable home, giving it to a suitable animal shelter, or humanely destroying it as deemed proper by the commissioner.
(d) With respect to the sale of an animal, the proceeds shall first be applied to the costs of the sale and then to the expenses for the care and provision of the animal, and the remaining proceeds, if any, shall be paid over to the owner of the animal. If the owner of the animal cannot be found, any remaining proceeds shall be paid into the estray fund, created pursuant to section 35-41-102.
(e) At least six days prior to disposing of the animal, the commissioner shall provide written notice to the owner at his last-known address of the time and place of the disposition of the animal.
(6)(a) If the owner is adjudged by the court a person unable to adequately provide for the animal or a person not fit to own the animal, then the court shall order that the animal be:
(I) Sold by the commissioner at public auction;
(II) Placed for adoption in a suitable home;
(III) Given to a suitable animal shelter;
(IV) Humanely destroyed as deemed proper by the court; or
(V) Disposed of in any other manner as deemed proper by the court.
(b) In no case shall the person adjudged unable to adequately provide for the animal or unfit to own the animal be allowed to purchase directly or indirectly the animal at any sale.
(c) With respect to the sale of an animal, the proceeds shall first be applied to the costs of the sale and then to the expenses for the care and provision of the animal, with the remaining proceeds, if any, being paid over to the owner of the animal. If the owner of the animal cannot be found, any remaining proceeds shall be paid into the estray fund, created pursuant to section 35-41-102.
(7) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the destruction of an animal as provided in section 35-42-110.
(8) Any officer or agent of the bureau may lawfully interfere to prevent the perpetration of an act of mistreatment, neglect, abandonment, or cruelty, pursuant to part 2 of article 9 of title 18, C.R.S., which act occurs in his presence.
- 18 U.S.C. 48.
- Colorado Revised Statute 18-9-202 CRS (under the provisions of paragraph (c), entering a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) to aggravated animal cruelty will result in a conviction).
- CRS 18-9-204 – Animal fighting – penalty.
(1)(a) No person shall cause, sponsor, arrange, hold, or encourage a fight between animals for the purpose of monetary gain or entertainment.
(b) For the purposes of this section, a person encourages a fight between animals for the purpose of monetary gain or entertainment if he or she:
(I) Is knowingly present at or wagers on such a fight;
(II) Owns, trains, transports, possesses, breeds, sells, transfers, or equips an animal with the intent that such animal will be engaged in such a fight;
(III) Knowingly allows any such fight to occur on any property owned or controlled by him;
(IV) Knowingly allows any animal used for such a fight to be kept, boarded, housed, or trained on, or transported in, any property owned or controlled by him;
(V) Knowingly uses any means of communication for the purpose of promoting such a fight; or
(VI) Knowingly possesses any animal used for such a fight or any device intended to enhance the animal’s fighting ability.
(2)(a) Except as described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (2), a person who violates the provisions of this section commits a class 5 felony and, in addition to the punishment provided in section 18-1.3-401, the court shall impose upon the person a mandatory fine of at least one thousand dollars.
(b) A person who commits a second or subsequent violation of this section commits a class 4 felony and, in addition to the punishment provided in section 18-1.3-401, the court shall impose upon the person a mandatory fine of at least five thousand dollars.
(3) Nothing in this section shall prohibit normal hunting practices as approved by the division of parks and wildlife.
(4) Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the training of animals or the use of equipment in the training of animals for any purpose not prohibited by law.
CRS 18-9-208 – Forfeiture of animals.
(1) Upon the motion of the prosecuting attorney or upon the court’s own motion, after the conviction of a defendant for cruelty to animals as described in section 18-9-202, or for animal fighting as described in section 18-9-204, the court may order the forfeiture of any animal owned by or in the custody of the defendant that:
(a) Was abused, neglected, mistreated, injured, or used by the defendant during the course of the criminal episode that gave rise to such conviction;
(b) Participated in or was affected by any act set forth in section 18-9-204 (1).
(2)(a) If an animal is the subject of a motion made under subsection (1) of this section and is not owned by the defendant, the court may nevertheless enter an order of forfeiture of the animal if the court finds that:
(I) The animal was abandoned prior to the criminal episode described in subsection (1) of this section;
(II) The owner of the animal is unknown; or
(III) The owner of the animal is known but cannot be located.
(b) Any person who contests a motion brought under this section shall establish such person’s standing as a true owner of the animal. The factors to be considered by the court in determining whether such person is a true owner shall include, but shall not be limited to, the following:
(I) Whether the person was the primary user, custodian, or possessor of the animal;
(II) Whether there is evidence that ownership of the animal is vested in the person;
(III) Whether consideration was paid for the purchase of the animal, and, if so, how much of the consideration was furnished by the person.
(c) If the court determines that a person other than the defendant is the true owner of the animal, the court may not enter an order forfeiting the animal under this section unless the court finds:
(I) The true owner was involved in the criminal episode described in subsection (1) of this section;
(II) The true owner knew or reasonably should have known of the criminal episode described in subsection (1) of this section and failed to take all reasonable steps available to him or her to prevent it; or
(III) Ownership of the animal was conveyed to the true owner in order to avoid a forfeiture.
(3) An order of forfeiture entered pursuant to this section shall provide for the immediate disposition of the forfeited animal by any means described in section 18-9-201 (2.5) other than return to the owner. If, in the opinion of a licensed veterinarian, the animal is experiencing extreme pain or suffering, or is severely injured past recovery, severely disabled past recovery, or severely diseased past recovery, the animal may be euthanized without a court order.
(4) The owner or custodian of an animal that is the subject of a motion brought under this section shall be liable for the cost of the care, keeping, transport, or disposal of the animal. In no event shall the prosecuting attorney or the office of the prosecuting attorney be liable for such cost.
(5) The court in its discretion may order a forfeiture authorized by this section as an element of sentencing, as a condition of probation, or as a condition of a deferred sentence.
CRS 18-9-202 (under the provisions of subsection (b) and (c) of the Colorado criminal code, the minimum fine for violation of subsection (b) and (c) is one thousand dollars.). For the purposes of this section, other costs defendants may have to pay include impoundment with the Department of Agriculture or another agency, the cost of care, research facility bills, law enforcement agency bills, impound costs, animal protection, recommendation of treatment, evaluation results, the cost of the evaluation, wildlife commission bills, animal control costs, animal shelter costs, and/or the opinion of a licensed veterinarian. The judicial district may pay certain costs if the defendant is indigent. In an appropriate case, animals injured past recovery may be put down. See also People v. Caswell (2021) 2021 COA 111. Prior to March 1, 2022, class 1 misdemeanors carried 6 to 18 months in jail and/or $500 to $5,000 in fines. SB21-271.
- 18 U.S.C. 48.
- See, for example, Matter of Ortega-Lopez, (BIA 2013) 26 I&N Dec. 99.
- See Colo. Rev. Stat. 24-72.