On Twitter, Houts posted a lengthy apology for her actions, stating that she is not “a dog abuser or animal abuser in any way, shape, or form.” She also said that she did not spit on her dog in the video and that she and her family were in the process of getting him training.
Despite significant public outcry on social media over Houts’s actions, the Los Angeles Police Department told BuzzFeed News that its Animal Cruelty Task Force looked into the matter and “determined it didn’t rise to the level of animal cruelty.”
Houts did not respond to interview requests.
Houts’s case is only a recent example of what some have called an animal abuse problem on social media such as YouTube, Instagram and other places where people can amass hundreds of thousands of followers.
A week after Houts’s video caught attention, a teen girl found herself under investigation when she filmed herself putting her dog in a clothes dryer on Instagram Live. In the video, she turns on the machine and loud thuds are heard as she claps her hands and laughs. The dog runs out of the laundry room once the dryer door is opened.
The girl is a minor and will not be identified, the Lewisville, Tex., Police Department said in a Facebook post. Police said the case was being investigated as a cruelty to a non-livestock animal.
Since at least 2008, the trend in public opinion has favored furry companions, according to Gallup. But animal protections vary across states, experts say, and they haven’t necessarily kept pace with the shift in opinion.
David Favre, a professor of property and animal law at Michigan State University, said what constitutes animal abuse varies by the language in the laws in each state. Cases involving bruising an animal or breaking its skin can be grounds for someone to be prosecuted, he said.
On the other hand, smacking and pushing might be disrespectful, but it’s not necessarily illegal, he said.
“There’s no law that requires you to respect your animal,” Favre said. Disrespecting your pet is “not a criminal act.”
Favre said there has been a significant cultural shift around animals within the past decade as more people have pets in the home and view them as they do children. The number of households with animals has increased. About 67 percent of households have a pet, with dogs and cats the most common, according to the American Pet Products Association.
The viewers of videos like Houts’s could be “expecting a level of treatment more appropriate to a child,” he said.
But people’s love of animals has not led to laws protecting them, according to Jessica Rubin, a clinical professor and director of the University of Connecticut’s animal law clinic.
Common statutory categories of animal cruelty include affirmative acts of cruelty, failures to act and intentional failures to act, according to Rubin. Failure to act could include not feeding or sheltering an animal, she said, but the intention of someone is often hard to prove, because it depends on the state of mind of the offender.
In some statutes, there are exemptions for certain species, such as agricultural animals or animals used for research, Rubin said. But places such as slaughterhouses and laboratories are not automatically exempt.
Most statues have categorical exemptions for standard industry practice, but treatment of animals that deviates from standard practice can still be prosecuted as animal cruelty, Rubin said, pointing to videos of people kicking chickens or beating pigs as examples of departures from industry norms.
Some states have laws regarding standards for animal care, offer immunity for veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse and allow courts to order convicted abusers not to own or live with animals, according to Rubin.
“Our cruelty laws need to catch up to our current relationship with animals,” she said, “to reflect that they are not just property but that they are beings that experience emotions and have both a reliance on humans and a special bond with humans.”
Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said it was important for the organization to bring attention to Houts because of her large social media following. PETA called for YouTube to remove Houts from their platform when the video surfaced.
“If she’s going to be using her platform to broadcast abuse of her dog, she absolutely doesn’t deserve to have her platform,” Byrne said. “She’s setting an example that it’s okay to inflict this kind of cruelty in an animal’s life.”
But counter to the idea that social media gives animal abuse a platform, Byrne also noted it has helped improve awareness about animal cruelty as more people are able to post their witness to abuse, even if it’s the same space that showcases questionable behavior.
Last week, a man was arrested for punching a dog three times in a video, according to the Miami Herald. In July, Twitch streamer Alinity Divine had to apologize for throwing her cat during a live stream, according to the Daily Dot.