Podcast: Companion animal cruelty laws

Millions of pet guardians across Canada consider our furry friends to be part of the family; but what happens when companion animals are the victims of cruelty?

The first episode of the Vancouver Humane Society’s podcast, The Informed Animal Ally, explores companion animal cruelty, laws, and advocacy. Listen as we dive into this topic, from gaps in federal legislation to how laws have harmed animals and their guardians.

Federal laws

A hand scratches a cat's chin

In the Canadian Criminal Code, companion animals are covered under the section “Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property“. The designation of companion animals as property in federal law has led to a patchwork of laws in which, for instance, different protections can exist for a domestic cat with a guardian compared to a feral cat. It also fails to address the intrinsic value of animals’ lives and well-being. Humane Canada is currently aiming to work with the Federal Minister of Justice to update the Criminal Code.

Specific animal cruelty cases that have set a precendent in Canada can be found through the NCPAC Case Law Database. Please note that the details in this database can be disturbing.

Canada does not currently recognize animal sentience at the federal level. A list of countries that have formally recognized non-human animal sentience can be found on Wikipedia.

Indigenous laws

A person pats a dog while sitting in the grass

Indigenous laws were applied on the land now known as Canada far before the existence of the colonial system. More about Indigenous law can be learned through the University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada course.

Generally speaking, Indigenous laws are concerned with maintaining and restoring harmony within and between human and non-human animal relationships. While specific laws differ based on the stories, history, ceremony, and worldview of each individual community, they are guided by the relationship between humans and the environment. They typically use restorative approaches that promote values including respect and consensus.

The interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the environment within the current Western tradition is considered under the One Welfare framework. This framework is not new; in fact, it is very similar to the values that have been held by Indigenous communities for thousands of years.

Historically, federal laws and practices have interfered with the freedoms of Indigenous communities to keep and care for companion animals. For instance, qimmiit (sled dogs) were an integral part of Inuit culture prior to being almost wiped out after the introduction of settlement life. Among the threats to the qimmiit was a cull by colonial authorities; hundreds of qimmiit were shot by the RCMP and other authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. For more information, see the Qikiqtani Truth Commission Final Report (PDF).

Provincial laws

A pit bull lounges on a bed

Each province and territory’s animal cruelty laws attempt to fill in the gaps left by the federal Criminal Code. Written legislation, case law, and interpretation vary between provinces and territories, creating inconsistent protections for animals across the country.

For instance, Quebec is the only province with a Civil Code, which is similar to the federal Criminal Code. Because the Civil Code enables more explicit written legislation, Quebec is the only province that officially recognizes animals as sentient beings in its written laws.

Alberta also set a precedent for recognizing animal sentience in a 2021 case regarding cruelty against a puppy named Cinnamon.

In British Columbia, companion animal protection is covered under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

A person walks a cat on a leash

Municipal laws

Municipal animal cruelty laws can allow for better community relations and animal care, but are often more open to interpretation, again leading to a patchwork approach.

Animal guardians living on a lower income are disproportionately affected by municipal laws and barriers, particularly fine-based systems, registration costs, and a lack of access to pet-friendly housing.

Where pet-friendly housing does exist, there are often further barriers to people living in poverty. For instance, some renters are required to spay and neuter their pets in order to find or keep their home—a procedure that can be prohibitively costly for pet guardians living on a low income.

The Vancouver Humane Society’s Helping Women and Pets in Crisis program aims to break down the barriers and support the pets of women who are seeking housing or maintaining their housing while caring for a pet in crisis.

Next episode

Keep an eye out on June 28 for the next episode of The Informed Animal Ally on farmed animals. Thank you for listening and thank you for reading.