Failure to euthanize suffering dog isn't animal cruelty, appeals court rules
An animal cruelty law does not reach a dog owner who ignored a veterinarian’s recommendation to euthanize her suffering, terminally ill dog, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled. Image from Shutterstock.
An animal cruelty law does not reach a dog owner who ignored a veterinarian’s recommendation to euthanize her suffering, terminally ill dog, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled.
The defendant, Maryann Russo, was charged under a provision of a Massachusetts law that makes it a crime to “knowingly and willfully” permit an animal to be “subjected to unnecessary torture, suffering or cruelty.”
In a Sept. 14 opinion, the appeals court said it interpreted the law to impose criminal liability only when an animal is “subjected” to a harm, rather than “suffering” a harm.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court said it has not found any case in which “a person’s failure to intervene with the complicated, heartbreaking, painful end of an animal’s life has been interpreted as ‘subjecting’ an animal to statutorily prohibited harm. We decline to extend the statute in this way.”
Russo’s family had arrived at an animal hospital with the 14-year-old dog on Christmas Day 2020, the opinion said, citing the evidence in a light most favorable to the state. The dog had a large mass on his side. The staff recommended surgery; the family instead took the dog home.
On Jan. 13, 2021, Russo and her mother brought the dog back to the animal hospital.
“By this point,” the opinion said, “the dog was anemic, unable to stand or walk, and suffering from bed sores, and he had a necrotic mass on his side, as well as an open necrotic wound. The dog’s breathing was labored. The veterinarian recommended humane euthanasia, opining that there was no way to control the dog’s ‘super painful’ condition.”
The dog was left at the animal hospital overnight. When the family returned, they requested the earlier-recommended surgery. The vet refused to operate, saying the dog probably wouldn’t survive. The family took the dog home and said a different veterinarian would euthanize the pet. The veterinarian suspected that the representation was untrue and contacted the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
Russo maintained that the dog was getting better when she contacted the Animal Rescue League’s hotline but did not return phone calls or respond to notices after that.
An investigator was allowed to enter the family’s home Feb. 4, 2021. The dog was wearing a diaper, lying on the couch and breathing shallowly. He had raw sores on his legs and had a large mass. A family member showed the investigator a bag containing what she claimed were the dog’s pain pills. She said the dog no longer needed them, however.
The family member again refused to euthanize the dog and said the animal would “die at home.”
The investigator obtained a warrant and had the dog euthanized.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court said its ruling was based on the facts of the case, and it expressed no opinion on whether depriving an animal of medical care might violate the animal cruelty law in a different situation.
Hat tip to Courthouse News Service, which noted the decision, Commonwealth v. Russo.