Recently, animal welfare officials received a tip from an unknown source who spotted unusual bite marks on several pit bulls. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) later assisted in the rescue of 23 pit bulls from a dog-fighting ring in North Carolina. The dogs are now receiving medical care.

You might think spotting animal abuse is easy, but that’s not always the case. A dog or cat may appear aggressive or unusually shy or fearful, but those qualities alone don’t provide a full picture. “It’s not always an easy call,” says Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society. VanKavage has worked on numerous cases of animal abuse.

“A senior dog or cat may look frail or grossly underweight,” she says. “That may be due to aging or an illness. It’s important to be sure before you report someone.”

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Physical signs

According to VanKavage and the ASPCA, there may be physical signs, such as these:

  • A tight fitting collar that has become embedded in the dog’s or cat’s neck
  • Open wounds or scars
  • Poor skin conditions such as patches of hair loss, scaly skin, bumps, rashes, extremely matted hair or a dirty coat
  • Emaciation to the point where the bones are visible
  • Fur infested with fleas, ticks or other parasites
  • Limping or being unable to walk or stand
  • Discharge from eyes or nose

Environmental cues

These may include:

  • Pets that are tied up alone outside for long periods of time
  • Pets that are kept outside in extreme heat or cold
  • Pets housed outside in areas littered with feces, garbage or trash
  • Multiple animals housed closely together where they can’t turn around in kennels or cages
  • Bad odors coming from houses that may have multiple animals

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“In hoarding cases, you can smell bad odors as you walk past a home,” says VanKavage. “It may have dozens of cats or a large number of dogs inside. The important thing to do is to report abuse if you suspect that it’s occurring.”

How to report abuse

Document what you see, the Humane Society suggests. Write down the date, time and location of the perceived abuse. Jot down a physical description of the person you suspect of abuse. If possible, use your smartphone to snap a quick picture or video. The agency responding to the abuse accusation will need all of this information.

Start by calling animal control. If you don’t have an animal control officer in your town or if the animal control officer doesn’t respond to repeated calls, call the police. If they say it’s not a police matter, VanKavage suggests you look up your town’s animal cruelty ordinances.

“Call the police back,” she said. “This time you’ll be prepared. Tell them that this is a police matter because your state’s statue regarding animal cruelty law has been violated. If the police won’t help, then go up the chain of command to the police chief.”

If you’re still not seeing results, call members of your local town council, talk to your town’s mayor, speak at your town’s council meetings, write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and call your local congressman. “The squeaky wheel gets results,” says VanKavage.

When reporting abuse, you can ask to remain anonymous. Police and other officials usually know not to divulge who reported the incident. It’s for your own safety and the safety of your family and pets.

“Reporting animal abuse can take time,” VanKavage says, “and it’s totally worth the effort. It’s the humane thing to do.”

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Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, and other leading publications. She blogs at Pet News and Views.