Cat and dog laws in the UK

cat and dog lying on the grass together

What does UK law say about pets? You might have a clear sense of what’s right and wrong when it comes to animals, but does it match what’s written in the rule books?

Having the right pet insurance and sticking to these rules is all part and parcel of being a responsible pet owner. Let’s find out about the legal issues around keeping and caring for cats and dogs.

cat sitting on white sofa with dog looking at camera

Pet ownership

You might see your pet dog or cat as part of your family, but in the eyes of the law they are items of property.

Ownership of dogs in the UK is supported by a register and microchip system. All dogs must be microchipped so they can be tracked and identified if they are stolen or dumped, as well as holding owners responsible if a dog attacks someone. Owners of dogs without a microchip can be fined up to £500.

There are proposals to make all cats have microchips, too. The increase in popularity of cats and dogs during the pandemic has pushed up the cost of buying pets, making them a more attractive target for thieves. It is hoped that a microchip system for cats would help to prevent this form of theft. If you are unlucky enough to have your pet stolen, the costs of advertising or reward might be covered by your pet/dog/cat insurance.

How well do you have to care for a pet?

We all hope every cat or dog has a loving, caring home but unfortunately this is not always the case. How bad do things have to be before you’re breaking the law?

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, owners of cats and dogs must provide for five key welfare needs:

  1. The need for a suitable environment
  2. The need for a suitable diet
  3. The need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  4. The need to be used with, or apart, from other animals
  5. The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

The government has provided codes of practice on how legal duties can be met for cats and dogs. These provide a lot of information about how you can take care of your pet and ensure they are happy and healthy.

For police to get involved with neglect of a cat or dog, the standard of care would need to fall far below the ideal. Some practices such as leaving dogs alone for long periods, providing a sub-optimal diet or failing to administer worming tablets regularly might be unpleasant, but they would be very unlikely to lead to a criminal conviction.

If someone is found guilty of the offence of cruelty or failing to provide for an animal’s welfare needs, possible penalties include a ban on owning animals, a fine of up to £20,000 or, in the worst cases, a six month prison sentence.

Pet, dog, cat, etc. insurance expects owners to provide a certain level of care in order for cover to be in place. A cat or dog that is not cared for according to the terms of the insurance, for example receiving necessary medication or vet care, may not be covered by your own pet insurance.

If you suspect a cat or dog is being neglected, the most urgent thing is to ensure they are safe. Your local RSPCA helpline can help to investigate suspected cruelty or neglect, but they will need a definite description of what is happening rather than a vague suspicion. Gather as much information as you can before calling.

What happens if your pet harms someone?

The law makes an important distinction between cats and dogs when it comes to keeping them under control. It is against the law to have a dog that is ‘dangerously out of control’, even on private property. For example, your dog must not pose a danger to people like postal workers and delivery drivers who enter your property.

If your dog causes someone injury, for example through biting or jumping up at them, the injured person could claim compensation from you. You may also be investigated by the police, for example to see if you could be charged under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which bans keeping certain types of dog.

You are also expected to keep your dog under control in public places. If your dog is not kept on a lead and suddenly runs out into the traffic, causing an accident, you could also be sued for compensation for injuries to people involved and for damage to their vehicles. This is the case even if your dog was injured or killed as well.

On the other hand, cats cannot be kept under control in the same way and they are seen as having ‘the right to roam’. This means you are not legally responsible for actions your cat takes when roaming around without you.

Cats are also much less likely to cause harm to people or property compared to dogs. However you are expected to take responsibility for your cat to some extent - if there is evidence of a clear pattern of your pet attacking a neighbour, for example, you should take action.

What if someone harms your pet?

As a cat or dog are seen as items of property in the eyes of the law, if someone harms your pet then they may be guilty of an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. They would need to kill or injure an animal belonging to someone else without lawful excuse - for example, not in order to defend themselves from an aggressive animal.

You would also have the right to claim compensation from someone who injured or harmed your dog, just as if they had damaged your property. For example, if you could prove someone had hurt your pet either deliberately or carelessly, you could claim an amount from them for the damage to your ‘property’ as well as vet fees, higher insurance premiums and so on.

Pet theft is another area of concern especially with cats and dogs commanding higher prices, which makes theft more lucrative. There are many steps you can take to keep dogs safe, for example not leaving them unattended when out in public, making your garden secure, and not letting them go off-lead in busy places.

In terms of cats, the circumstances can be a little more complicated when outdoor cats roam; it’s hard to tell if they have been stolen, have got lost or run over, or simply found another home they prefer to yours!

If your pet goes missing, your insurance for your pet might provide cover to help track it down or compensation if, tragically, your pet cannot be located.

cat looking sad lying down

What happens to your pet in a divorce or relationship breakdown?

The legal concept of a dog or cat being an object of property makes it difficult to work out what happens when a relationship ends. Whereas most shared items of property can be split or one half pays the other to ‘buy them out’, often both partners want to keep the pet in their lives, just as if it was a child.

Hard as it may be, the best option after a break up is to sit down and agree what the best option is for your beloved pet. This might depend on who has the most time for the pet or the most suitable home. The other partner could have agreed times to spend time with the pet to maintain contact.

Where former couples cannot agree and take the issue of pet ownership to court, a judge would look at many factors including who bought the dog originally, who has been its main carer, whose name is listed on the microchip and your pet insurance and who is the registered contact with the vet.

Courts can rule on legal ownership of a pet, but they cannot order visitation rights, which is why it’s best to work out a solution.

If you become the main owner of a cat or dog after a break up, make sure your name is the one listed on key documents such as the microchip, pet insurance policy and vets. Updating the microchip with a current name and address is a legal requirement.

What if you want to breed from your pet?

Seeing your pet have a litter of kittens or puppies can be a real joy, but the law does put some limits on breeding from your cat or dog. Unfortunately, some people use their pets as money-making machines, breeding them so often that it harms their health, keeping them in poor conditions and failing to give the puppies or kittens all they need for a healthy start in life.

In England, the law requires anyone who breeds three or more litters of puppies or kittens in a 12-month period, or who breeds and advertises a business of selling dogs and cats to register with their local authority and obtain a license.

The license means that breeders will have been inspected to check they are meeting the minimum requirements for breeding puppies and kittens, for example ensuring the young pups or kittens stay with their mum for at least 8 weeks and that they have been suitably socialised.

The law also changed in 2020 to ban third party sales of cats and dogs - meaning only puppies or kittens that were bred by the seller themselves or by a legitimate business can be sold. It is now illegal to buy puppies and kittens to sell on again.

If you are planning to breed from your pet, it’s important to check the terms of your insurance policy so you are clear whether the vet care is covered. You might also want to take out some pet insurance for the new puppies or kittens.

Whether you’re breeding animals or simply love to have a large family of furries, you might come into legal trouble if you have an unusual number of pets. This can cause nuisance to neighbours such as noise, smell and fouling. The Local Authority could issue you with an abatement notice under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and proceed to prosecution if you do not comply.

Having lots of animals may also be a breach of your duty under the Animal Welfare Act and could be a criminal offence.

Taking your dog out in public

Ensuring that your dog does not cause a nuisance or a danger in public is a very important part of being a dog owner. The law will quickly catch up with you if you do not act responsibly.

So, what does the law expect of you when taking your dog out and about?

Clean up your dog’s mess

Dog poo is not just unpleasant to step in - it can be dangerous. Dog faeces can contain parasites that, if left, spread to grass and can cause pregnant cows to miscarry, as well as leading to blindness in humans. You must always have poop bags and dispose of your dog’s mess in a bin. Breaking the law could result in a fine of anywhere from £100 to £1,000.

Keep your dog on a lead

There is a lot of discretion about where dogs can be let off the lead, but you should check the signs as well as using common sense. Common places where dogs must be kept on a lead include children’s playgrounds, sports pitches, by roads and in parks and beaches.

Protecting livestock

A walk in the country with your dog is one of life’s joys, but it can all go wrong fast if your pet chases an animal. Chasing or barking at cattle, sheep, horses or other animals can cause them stress and may make them miscarry young, even if they are not bitten. You must keep your dog on a lead around livestock to prevent this. If you do not, farmers may shoot your dog or you could end up with a fine of up to £1,000.

In cafés and pubs

Many cafés, pubs and restaurants now advertise themselves as being dog-friendly but you must still ensure your pet is under control at all times. Your dog should not roam around freely, and must not enter restricted areas such as kitchens and food preparation areas.

Use a collar and tag

Even if your dog is microchipped, you need to ensure it is wearing a collar and tag with your name and address (a telephone number is sensible too). You can be fined up to £2,000 if your dog is out without a collar and tag.

golden retriever being walked by owner

Taking your pet in the car

The Highway Code now states that dogs and other animals have to be ‘suitably restrained’ when travelling in a vehicle, to ensure they do not distract you when driving or injure you or themselves if you need to stop quickly.

If you’re thrown forward in your vehicle in a collision, your pet could also be thrown forward at speed. Depending on the size of your dog, this could be enough to kill them as well as the driver or passengers.

Dogs can be restrained using a boot gate, harness, crate or carrier. Your choice of what to use will depend on your dog’s individual characteristics such as size, level of anxiety when in the car, volatility, and who else or what else needs to be in the car when you travel. Calm dogs can travel in the front passenger seat beside you with a suitable restraint, but you should move the seat back as far as you can and disable the airbags to make sure they do not injure your pet in the event of a collision.

As any cat owner will know, felines are not usually happy about going in a car. However, using a carrier in the right size, with a comfy blanket and a few toys inside can make journeys easier. Cats may find it easier to go in carriers if they are allowed to use one as a sleeping or hiding place at home. Make sure you hold the carrier gently and avoid swinging it or clashing it against anything as this may cause your cat distress.

Can you take your pet abroad?

The law also sets out rules for taking your cat or dog abroad. These rules changed from 1st January 2021 following Brexit, so make sure you’re up to date before you travel. The rules are different depending on whether you’re travelling within the EU (and Northern Ireland) or outside the EU.

In the EU, the old pet passport system is no longer valid. You now need an animal health certificate for each trip you make to the EU or Northern Ireland. This can be done by visiting the vet no more than 10 days before you travel. Make sure you book this appointment ahead, as vets can get very busy and might not be able to fit you in at short notice.

If your cat or dog has not travelled abroad before or their rabies vaccination is out of date, you need to see the vet at least 21 days before travelling. Animals must be 12 weeks old to have a rabies vaccination and cannot travel until 21 days after receiving it.

Certain places (Ireland, Northern Ireland, Finland, Malta and Norway) also require your pet to have a tapeworm treatment before travelling. This needs to be done between 24 hours to five days before entering the country.

To travel to a non-EU country with your pet, you will need an export health certificate, which confirms whether your pet meets the health requirements for your destination country. You should always check the rules of the country carefully to find out about any additional requirements.

If you do not follow the rules for taking your pet abroad, they could be put into quarantine for up to four months before being allowed to enter the country, or even refused entry if you travel by sea. This is why it’s incredibly important to follow the rules carefully.

You should also check your pet insurance to see whether your cat or dog is insured to travel abroad under the policy. Before travelling, you should also consider whether it might be better to leave your pet at home. Some pets dislike travel and might be distressed by the disruption to their usual routines.

Illegal pets

Certain breeds of dog are banned in the UK. These include the Pit Bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Braziliero. These dogs are associated with fighting and aggression. Under the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997, you can apply to a court for an exemption order if you own a dog in one of the banned breeds.

Under the court process, the dog will undergo an assessment to determine if they pose any danger. While this assessment is carried out, the dog remains under police care. If the dog is found to pose a danger, it will be put to sleep. Dogs who are granted an exemption must still wear a muzzle and be kept on a lead in public at all times.

Banned breeds have traditionally been associated with dogs, but there is some discussion about whether certain breeds of cat should be banned from being kept as pets in the UK. So-called ‘hybrid’ pets are a cross between domestic cats and exotic breeds. For example, the Savannah cat is a cross between a domestic cat and a wild African serval. There are proposals to ban these hybrid breeds in the UK and you may find it challenging to find suitable pet insurance to cover them.

Get a quote from Purely Pets

You want to do the right thing by your pet. Making sure you follow the law is important, but so is having specialist pet insurance for all of your furry friends.

Get in touch today to find out more about how Purely Pets can help to protect your cat or dog.

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