Legal Information Centre

07 October 2008 by Patrick Tiernan

Animal law

  • Hunting hounds
A pet owner has obligations to the animal and to those with whom it comes into contact,says Patrick Tiernan.

Children are often given pets as a lesson in responsibility, but for adults too ownership has a number of demands – more than many imagine.

Upon purchasing a pet the owner has an obligation both to the animal under their care and to others with whom it comes into contact. Beyond household pets there are also an increasing number of animal law cases involving large sums of money, such as hunting and horse riding.

Caring for pets

Under the Animal Welfare Act pet owners have a legal reponsibility for their animal’s welfare and provided they meet these basic requirements the advice should never be required.

The ‘duty of care’ for the animal’s welfare includes ensuring:

  • suitable environment

  • suitable diet

  • ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

  • protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease

Dog bites

The important piece of legislation that dictates the owner’s responsibility for their animal’s behaviour is the Animals Act 1971. Under this law the keeper of an animal is liable, regardless of whether they were at fault, for any accident involving their pet.

Among such accidents dog attacks are of most common concern, especially following the tragic death of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson in 2007. Neither was the attack on her by the family’s pitbull terrier necessarily a freak incident, with 127 children in London requiring hospital treatment following a dog attack in that year. This number is up from 58 such incidents reported four years’ earlier.

The greater incidence of such attacks has in turn prompted police to seize a greater number of dogs under the power of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The act is notorious for its ambiguity, in practice encompassing not just pitbulls, but also any dogs sharing the characteristics of a pitbull. It requires that such animals be registered, neutered, microchipped and tattooed. The act also makes it a criminal offence to be in possession of a dog who is dangerously out of control in public.

If you are found in possession of a prohibited dog you can be fined up to £5,000 and jailed for up to six month, rising to two years if the dog injures someone. In a recent case personal injury lawyers Irwin Mitchell won a £3,500 settlement for a man bitten by a dog.

Equine law

This is a growing area of the law with larger financial considerations on top of the usual emotional attachment felt by animal owners. Annually it is a £4bn industry according to the 2006 BETA national equestrian survey which also counts 720,000 people as horse owners.

The increasing number of newcomers are more wary of their legal rights and where equine deals would often be agreed with a handshake in the past, now participants are increasingly turning to solicitors to arrange formal agreements.

Horse owners will most commonly seek legal advice on sale and purchase agreements, loan agreements, livery agreements and stud agreements. Solicitors will also be consulted for incidents of negligence including in veterinary care and injuries that most often occur in competition.

The Animals Act 1971 applies here as well, holding owners liable for their horse’s actions, in the same way that dog owners are liable for their pets, no matter whether or not the owner is negligent.


According to the BETA survey, 63,000 horses were being kept in Britain for the purpose of hunting in 2006 – despite the Hunting Act coming into force at the beginning of 2005. In the season following the ban there were in fact more hunts with a larger number of members and indeed it has proved a hard law to enforce when little can be known about what takes place on private land.

The act:

  • PERMITS the chasing of rabbits and rats with dogs, but PROHIBITS chasing mice, hares or squirrels;

  • PERMITS hunting with two dogs to flush out a fox for the protection of property such as farm animals or crops, as long as the animal is shot, but PROHIBITS the use of any more than two dogs;

  • PERMITS the sending of hounds below ground to flush out a fox to protect game birds, but PROHIBITS such flushing out to protect lambs, chicken or ground nesting birds;

  • PERMITS using a pack of hounds to flush out a fox if it is killed by a bird of prey;

  • PROHIBITS a person walking their dog to allow it to chase a squirrel, mouse or bird.

If the law is breached you could be fined up to £5,000.

More News & Guidance