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Rights and obligations of pet owners

Having a pet (mainly a dog or cat) brings a lot of responsibility. Read about some of the key laws you should be aware of when owning a pet.

Welfare

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, animal owners are under an obligation to provide and promote their pet’s well-being. More specifically, pets should:

  • have a suitable environment to live in

  • have a suitable diet

  • be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

  • have any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals

  • be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

Failing to ensure these needs are met is a criminal offence, but they also risk causing suffering or stress.

Under the law, it’s also illegal to dock a dog’s tail, in whole or part. The only exceptions to this rule are if: 

  • it’s for a medical reason

  • the dog is to be destined as a working dog (eg to be used in the armed forces), or

  • the dog is less than 5 days old

In any case, docking a dog’s tail can only be administered by a certified veterinarian.

There are codes of practice for the welfare of different animals:

Dangerous dogs

Some types of dogs are illegal to own, breed, sell, abandon, or give away. The four banned types are:

  • Pit Bull Terrier

  • Japanese Tosa

  • Dogo Argentino

  • Fila Brasileiro

If you own one of these types of dogs, a court can make a destruction order (in which case the dog will be euthanised), or, if they are satisfied that you are a suitable owner and that your dog doesn’t pose a risk to the general public, they can make a ‘contingent destruction order’. This means your dog will be exempt and allowed to stay with you under strict conditions including neutering, microchipping, tattooing with a unique identifier, third party insurance and registration on the Index of Exempted Dogs. The dog will need to be muzzled in public and kept on a lead.

Failing to comply with these strict conditions could lead to the seizure of your dog and prosecution.

Dangerously out of control

It’s against the law to let any type of dog be dangerously out of control anywhere, including in:

  • a public place

  • a private place (eg a neighbour’s house or garden)

  • the owner’s home

Your dog is considered dangerously out of control if it:

  • injures someone

  • makes someone worried that it might injure them

If your dog is dangerously out of control, you can get an unlimited fine, be sent to prison for up to 6 months or both. You may not be allowed to own a dog in the future and your dog may be ‘destroyed’ (ie put down).

If you let your dog injure someone you can be sent to prison for up to 5 years, be fined or both. If you deliberately use your dog to injure someone you could be charged with ‘malicious wounding’.

Livestock

Care must be taken when your dog is near livestock and in the countryside. You can face a fine and compensation under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 if your dog: 

  • chases or attacks livestock, or

  • isn't under ‘close control’ (ie on a leash) at certain times of the year or in certain areas in the countryside

Under this law, farmers are legally allowed to stop dogs if they believe them to be a threat to livestock. This includes killing dogs that are chasing or worrying farm animals.

Environmental protections

There are several laws that cover pets and environmental protections and several key issues come under these laws. However, the main issue is dog fouling which is the most prominent and complained about nuisance.

In general, you must pick up after your dog in public with some exceptions such as woodland or land used for the grazing of animals. Local authorities have the power to impose Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) to prevent dog fouling. These orders may force owners to pick up after their dog or require them to carry bags with them at all times. Owners can be issued with a fixed penalty notice and prosecuted.

Nuisance 

When dogs bark over a long period of time, they can become a nuisance. However, each case is determined on its own facts and will depend on the volume of barking, duration of barking and the time of day it happens.

Noise, smell, dust and other forms of pollution from a cat can also all be classed as a nuisance.

If a complaint is made to the council, they will investigate the noise as a potential statutory nuisance. The council may serve a Noise Abatement Notice and the dog owner has 21 days to appeal. If the barking continues then they may prosecute the dog owner and, if convicted, the offender may be ordered to pay an unlimited fine and the court may impose a Criminal Behaviour Order.

Mandatory microchipping

Since April 2016, the law requires that all dogs in the UK be microchipped and that the owner’s details be registered on one of the authorised databases (such as Petlog). This applies to all dogs and puppies over the age of 8 weeks.

Exemptions can be available if a veterinarian believes that there is a valid health reason not to microchip a dog. An exemption certificate will be issued to the owner.

Owners are required to keep their dog’s details up-to-date, and if the dog is given to a new owner, the new owner must be given the correct microchip paperwork. Owners caught not registering and microchipping their dog can be faced with a fine.

All dogs must have an appropriate collar and tag with the owner’s name and address on it when in a public place, even if your dog is microchipped and on a leash.

The government is currently considering making microchipping mandatory for cats as well.

Shock collars

In Wales only, it is an offence to make a dog wear a shock (or electric) collar. These collars are sometimes used to train dogs but can hurt dogs if used improperly and may cause dogs stress even if used as intended.

While shock collars are currently not illegal in the rest of the UK, the English and Scottish governments are reviewing legislation to ban their sale and use.

Buying a pet

You must be at least 16 years old to buy a pet. Adults are responsible for their children’s pets. When buying a pet you should consider:

  1. Where you purchased your pet - from a private seller or business seller. If you buy a pet from a business seller your rights under the Consumer Rights Act will relate to the purchase. It is not always clear whether breeders should be considered business or private sellers. You have fewer rights when you buy a pet from a private seller and the onus is on you as the buyer to ask all the right questions before making a purchase

  2. How you paid for your pet

  3. The pet's age - puppies and kittens should never be sold under 8 weeks old

  4. What information you have about your pet - what information the seller provided (including answers from any questions you asked to get a full picture of the animal’s health and background). Note that if the pet was born outside the UK it must have either a pet passport or a veterinary certificate

  5. The written record you have about your pet - email confirmation of facts, a signed puppy contract or a commercial document from a pet shop

Third-party sellers

Since April 2020 in England (and September 2021 in Wales and Scotland), under what is commonly known as ‘Lucy’s Law’, the third-party sale of puppies and kittens is banned. Under this law, puppies and kittens are required to be born and reared in a safe environment, alongside their mother, and to be sold from their place of birth.

This means that: 

  • sellers are not allowed to sell puppies or kittens as pets if they’re less than 6 months old and they were not bred by the seller

  • anyone wanting to get a new puppy or kitten must now buy directly from a breeder or adopt from a rescue centre 

  • licensed dog breeders are required to show puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth

When visiting before getting your pet:

  • check that the mother is present - if she is not available to meet, it’s unlikely that the puppy or kitten was bred there. Beware of any sellers making excuses as to why the mother isn’t present (eg she’s at the vet, asleep, or out for a walk)

  • check there isn’t a ‘fake’ mother - most fake mothers don’t interact with the puppies as they fear the real mother returning

  • beware of puppies and kittens labelled as ‘rescue’ but with much higher than expected price tags

  • beware of offers to meet somewhere convenient (car park or motorway services, ‘shop front’ premises, common with rented properties just to make sales, and ‘sales rooms’ kept separate from a nearby or onsite puppy farm)

  • consider if you are feeling rushed or pressured into parting with cash

  • note that health problems observed at purchase are not normal and don’t be convinced otherwise

Dog breeding license

Those running a dog breeding or advertising business should have a dog breeding license. This includes anyone: 

  • breeding at least 3 litters a year in England, Wales or Northern Ireland
  • breeding at least 3 litters a year in Scotland
  • who breeds 1 or 2 litters in 12 months and sells puppies, if they are deemed to be breeding dogs and advertising a dog selling business by their local authority

Dog breeding license holders must not sell a puppy under the age of 8 weeks or in need of any veterinary treatment (eg a puppy that is sick). Bear in mind that licensed dog breeders must show puppies interacting with their mothers in their place of birth.

If you are buying from a breeder, check that they have a licence. Breeders should provide their license details (including the license number) in the ad for the puppy. In England only, you can also check the breeder’s star rating on your local council website. 

If a breeder doesn’t have a license but you think they should, or feel that they are not following the regulations of their license, you can report them to your local council. If someone is found breeding dogs for business without a license or is breaking the conditions of their license, they could face a fine or imprisonment

Other pet breeding licenses

In Scotland only, a licence is also required by anyone:

  • selling animals as pets in the course of a business

  • engaging in animal rehoming activities (other than operating an animal welfare establishment)

  • operating animal welfare establishments (eg animal rehoming centres or animal sanctuaries)

  • breeding at least 3 litters of kittens in any 12 month period

  • breeding at least 6 litters of kits (rabbits) in any 12 month period

For more information, see the Scottish SPCA guidance.

See the government's guidance for general guidance and additional sources on buying pets. 

If your dog is attacked by another one

It is an offence for a dog owner to allow their dog to be 'dangerously out of control'. This means that if another dog attacks your dog, and if you fear that it will injure you if you attempt to stop the attack, it may be that the owner of the other dog is guilty of a failure to control their pet and you can take the owner to court. The court will have to make a decision on the circumstances surrounding the attack and whether or not an offence was committed. You could also claim back any veterinary bills you have had to pay as a result of the attack. It is important to note that pursuing a claim through the courts can be a long and expensive process and the outcome will depend on the evidence you can present. 

If your dog is attacked by another dog, the incident could be reported to the police.

Disputes about pets

A common issue is what happens to the pet when a couple separates.

Under the law, dogs are known as ‘chattels’ (ie a tangible asset) and in the event of a dispute on custody over the dog, the courts would consider who is the dog’s correct owner. The courts can:

  • make a declaration as to who the true owner is

  • make an order for the return of the dog to the true owner

  • make an order for damages

Proving ownership of the dog is not simple and it would require the courts to infer ownership from all the available evidence. Some factors that can be taken into account are:

  • who purchased the dog

  • whose name is registered on the microchip database

  • whose name is on the insurance policy

  • who mainly looks after the dog

However, these factors are only evidentiary support for ownership. These factors do not necessarily prove absolute ownership. It’s now becoming more common for couples to create ‘pet-nup agreements’ which details what should happen to the pet on separation or breakdown of the relationship.

It’s important to note that the courts do not have the power to order access to a dog.

Animal boarding

Under the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963 anyone running an establishment, whether a private dwelling or not, where a business is conducted for the provision of accommodation for other people’s cats and dogs needs a licence. You can report a boarding kennel without a license to your local council.

For more information read the government's guidance on Boarding for cats or dogs licence (for England) and Animal boarding establishment licence (for Wales and Scotland).

Pets can generally be taken to work provided that no laws are broken by doing so (eg hygiene standards in a restaurant or cafe or workplaces providing medical services). There are no general laws restricting pets from being brought into work, but it depends on the workplace.

Whether a pet can be brought into the workplace is, therefore, usually up to the employer to decide. If you want to bring your pet to work (either regularly or on a one-off occasion), you should speak to your employer. However, bear in mind that employers are not under an obligation to allow pets in the workplace as, in addition to potentially presenting a health and safety hazard, pets may distract employees and result in decreased productivity. Note that the position regarding service animals is different and failing to accommodate an assistance dog may amount to unlawful discrimination.