Repeat animal abusers could face increased penalties under various proposals being considered by state lawmakers.

Repeat offenses could be a felony under legislation still under consideration by an Iowa Senate subcommittee. Actions that result in a serious injury to an animal would be handled as increased misdemeanors.

The proposal does not affect livestock and wildlife. 

Under the current law, a pet’s owner is excluded from animal abuse charges.

Iowa has some of the weakest animal abuse laws in the country, according to Rep. Andy McKean, R-Anamosa. He said Iowa is one of only four states in which animal cruelty is not a felony on the first offense and noted that Iowa is among the states with the highest number of puppy mills. 

State Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said the reform is needed. She cited the current law, which charges an animal abuser when the person “injures, maims, disfigures, or destroys an animal owned by another person.” That means the animal’s owner cannot be charged in cases of abuse, neglect or death.

“How ridiculous is that?” asked Wolfe, who represents House District 98.

“I don’t know why the 1998 Iowa General Assembly believed that dog or cat owners should be free to abuse their animals with impunity, and I don’t much care,” Wolfe continued. “Most abused dogs are abused by their owners, not by strangers; thus, the Iowa Legislature needs to get rid of the ‘by another person’ language … so that anyone who abuses a dog or cat can be held accountable for that reprehensible conduct.”

Previous attempts at animal abuse reform irritated some legislators, who were concerned that the penalties for abusing a dog were higher than abusing children, recalled Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, who said there “seems to be loopholes” in the way the current law is written.”

“I know the penalties are there, but it seems like people get around them due to a technicality. I think we need to change that,” said Mommsen, noting that Democrats and Republicans seem to be working together on animal abuse reform.

McKean said he supports legislation “that would subject animal abusers to increased penalties.” 

Under proposed legislation, an aggravated misdemeanor, the elevated level in the bill, results in a sentence of up to two years and a fine of between $625 and $6,250. A class D felony, the bill’s suggestion for a second offense would result in a sentence of up to five years and a fine between $750 and $7,500.

However, increased penalties won’t necessarily deter abusers, Wolfe said, noting that the proposed bill increases current penalties for second and subsequent convictions only.

“If that’s all the Iowa Legislature does, then in my opinion we really haven’t done anything to help protect companion animals from neglect, abuse, and/or torture. … at a minimum, we need to make it a crime for dog/cat owners to abuse their own dogs/cats, and we need a legal mechanism to keep animal abusers away from potential future victims.”

She said people convicted of animal neglect, abuse or torture should not be allowed to own pets for a certain period of time and that temporary no-contact orders should be used in cruelty cases.

Enhanced penalties for animal abusers and training for law enforcement officials to detect and prosecute these crimes are needed, added Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, and Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville.

The Observer editor Nick Joos contributed to this article.