WASHINGTON – The Federal Bureau of Investigation has changed the way the agency will identify and report cases of animal cruelty.

Animal cruelty crimes will be reported as separate offenses in the agency's National Incident Based Reporting System, which generates the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program. Animal abuse crimes will be classified as Group A offenses, and considered a "crime against society" along with homicide, arson and other major offenses.

Four categories of crimes against animals will be kept: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse and animal sex abuse. The changes will be implemented sometime in 2015, and the FBI will accept collected data from law enforcement agencies in January 2016.

Animal rights groups have applauded the change. Previously, animal abuse cases were categorized with mostly minor crimes. But significant research has established a link between animal abuse and other crimes, particularly crimes against people.

"With this new inclusion in the Uniform Crime Report — the most comprehensive source of crime statistics — law enforcement is given the tools to allocate resources to fight animal cruelty and an incentive to prosecute animal cruelty to the full extent of the law," Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote in a recent blog post.

The Uniform Crime Reporting program was established to provide crime statistics for the United States. Four annual publications are produced from date received from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies including university and college campus police departments, county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.