MONTREAL - Quebec is in the doghouse with the U.S.-based Animal Legal Defence Fund.
The group's 2012 rankings of Canadian animal protection laws describes Quebec as "the province with the weakest animal protection legislation" in the country.
"It was joined in the bottom tier by Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, which remains the worst jurisdiction in Canada when it comes to animal protection," the California-based group said in the report released Monday.
Nunavut had only five strengths in the report, including possible incarceration for abusers. But the review suggested 21 areas where laws could be toughened in the territory.
The fund did acknowledge Quebec's efforts to tighten its animal cruelty laws in 2011 and praised its use of mandatory fines for abusers and standards for basic care.
At the other end of the scale, Manitoba (No. 1) and Ontario (No. 3) are praised for their laws and have been joined this year in the top tier by second-ranked British Columbia, which the fund says has made significant improvements with tougher penalties, including the possibility of two years in jail for abusers and a $75,000 fine.
Nova Scotia was fourth.
Newfoundland and Labrador, which ranked fifth out of 13, was credited with broadening its protection for animals by increasing fines to $50,000 from $500, requiring veterinarians to report suspected abuse and targeting animal fighting.
A spokesman for Quebec's Agriculture Department, which oversees the animal cruelty laws, was not immediately available to comment.
However, a spokeswoman for an organization that helped Quebec toughen its laws agreed that while the province is getting better at protecting animals, the rankings show there is still room for improvement.
"I think it reflects where Quebec has been as a province," said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian branch of the Humane Society International.
"The good news is that the Quebec government is working very, very hard to address the situation."
She described new regulations governing the commercial breeding of animals, for instance, as "a giant step in the right direction."
"What remains to happen is a more thorough review of the animal welfare legislation, which is scheduled to happen at some point this year,'' she said.
The Animal Legal Defence Fund wants Quebec to expand its protection to a wider range of species, not just dogs and cats, and impose prohibitions on animal fighting. It also wants the province to consider the psychological welfare of all species and include mental health evaluation and counselling.
Aldworth said some of those issues are on the table for the law's review and noted the government is well aware of its place in the rankings.
Acknowledging that legislative change takes time, Aldworth said most governments have lagged behind public opinion concerning animal protection. She would like to see strong action taken at the federal level, noting animal welfare provisions in the Criminal Code have not seen much of an update since 1892.
Stephen Wells, the fund's executive director, said in a statement there is a lesson to be drawn from the rankings for all governments.
"Animals do not vote but those who love and care about them do," he said. "It is our hope that these ongoing reviews continue to garner support for both the strengthening and enforcement of animal protection laws throughout Canada."
It's not the first time the province has run afoul of the fund. It was also tagged as "the best province to be an animal abuser" in the organization's 2011 report.
Quebec has long been considered the puppy mill capital of North America with an estimated 800 unregulated breeding operations in Montreal alone in past years.
The province cracked down on puppy mills in 2011, giving the government the power to close a kennel if it finds animals are being abused. Fines of up to $75,000 for serious cases were also included in amendments to animal protection legislation.
The new law additionally required some owners of 20 or more animals such as cats and dogs to be licensed and established rules on how animals are housed and what methods of euthanasia can be used.