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 this law, animal owners are under an obligation to provide and promote their pets 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 this law it’s also illegal to dock a dog’s tail, in whole or part. The only exceptions to this rule are i) if it’s for a medical reason, ii) if the dog is to be destined as a working dog (eg to be used in the armed forces), or iii) if 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 Braziliero

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 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, such as:

  • in a public place
  • in a private place, for example a neighbour’s house or garden
  • in the owner’s home

Your dog is considered dangerously out of control if it:

  • injures someone
  • makes someone worried that it might injure them

You can get an unlimited fine or be sent to prison for up to 6 months (or both) if your dog is dangerously out of control. 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 or fined (or both). If you deliberately use your dog to injure someone you could be charged with ‘malicious wounding’.

Environmental Protections

Several key issues come under these laws. The main one is dog fouling. Dog fouling 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 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 all be classed as a nuisance as well.

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

From April 2016, the law requires that all dogs in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to be microchipped, and the owner’s details must be registered on one of the authorised databases (such as Petlog). This applies to all dogs and puppies over the age of eight 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.

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

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 a business seller or private seller. 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. What information you have about your pet - what information the seller provided, and answers from the questions you asked to get a full picture of the animal’s health and background

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

If your dog is attacked by another one

It 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. 

For more information read GOV.UK on Animal boarding establishment licence (England, Wales and Scotland).