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UK:  Laws governing animal welfare


Animal Welfare Act 2006

How does the Act affect me? Are the laws different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Yes, although there are many similarities.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies only to England and Wales. Secondary legislation and codes of practice made under the Act can be made separately for England and Wales, although there will be many elements of both that are very similar or the same.

More information about the secondary legislation and codes of practice that apply to animal welfare in England can be found here (secondary legislation page). More information about animal welfare in Wales can be found here.

The Scottish Parliament passed its own Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006, which applies to the whole of Scotland. More information can be found here.

Northern Ireland will be covered by existing legislation relating to animals. The principal law governing animal welfare in Northern Ireland is the Protection of Animals Act 1911.

What does the ‘duty of care’ mean?

“Duty of care” is a legal phrase which means that someone has an obligation to do something. Prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, people only had a duty to ensure that an animal didn’t suffer unnecessarily. The new Act keeps this duty but also imposes a broader duty of care on anyone responsible for an animal to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s needs are met. This means that a person has to look after the animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer. The Act says that an animal’s welfare needs include:

a suitable environment (how it is housed);
a suitable diet (what it eats and drinks);
the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns;
any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals; and
protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

I’m not really sure what this would mean in practice. Where can I find more information to help me properly care for my pet?

Your vet can give you advice about healthcare and your animal’s needs. However, your first port of call for general information may be a specific club or society for your type of pet. There are also several charities and organisations who may be able to help you with specific questions.

Battersea Dogs’ Home
Blue Cross
British Veterinary Association
Cats Protection
Pet Care Trust
Wood Green

Please note that Defra is not responsible for the accuracy of advice given by external bodies.

Does this Act apply to all animals?

The Act defines “animal” as referring to any living vertebrate animal, although there is provision to extend this if future scientific evidence shows that other kinds of animals are also capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Parts of the Act apply to any animal (for example, not using animals to fight), but other parts only to “protected animals” or to animals for which a person is “responsible”.

A “protected animal” is one that:
  • is normally domesticated in the British Isles,
  • either permanently or temporarily under a person’s control, or
  • is not living in a wild state.

    The duty of care (the need to provide for an animal’s welfare) applies to animals for which a person is responsible. A person is responsible for an animal if he or she is:
  • the owner of the animal;
  • in charge of the animal, for example an owner of boarding kennels;
  • a parent or guardian of a person under 16 who is responsible for the animal.

    A person can be responsible for an animal on a temporary basis; for example, looking after a friend’s cat whilst they are on holiday.

    The Act doesn’t apply to animals used in licensed laboratory work. These animals are protected under a different law: the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

    Why won’t a child be allowed to buy a pet, or win one as a prize?

    A child will still be able to ‘own’ a pet and a parent or responsible adult will still be able to buy a pet for a child under 16. However, the Act increases to 16 the minimum age at which a child may buy a pet on their own. A person under 16 will be able to buy an animal as long as they are accompanied by an adult. This prevents purchase on a whim without parental consent, and ensures that proper thought is given to the animal’s care and welfare.

    For these reasons, unaccompanied children under 16 cannot win an animal as a prize, except when accompanied by an adult. However, the person responsible for the animal will still need to ensure that their new pet is cared for properly.

    What happens if someone breaks this law?

    There are two different types of actions that can be taken under the Act:

    An improvement notice can be issued.
    A criminal prosecution can be brought.

    Improvement notices

    If a person does not look after their animal’s welfare, an improvement notice can be issued. This will set out:
  • how the person is failing to look after the animal’s welfare;
  • what steps need to be taken to improve it;
  • a time limit within which to comply with the steps set out in the notice; and
  • it will explain what will happen if the notice is not complied with.

    If a person complies with the improvement notice within the time limit set out, then they will not be able to be prosecuted for the actions which led to the notice being issued.

    An improvement notice is not a criminal penalty, and a person who receives an improvement notice will not have a criminal record as a result. However, failure to put right the welfare problem which led to the giving of an improvement notice can lead to a criminal prosecution.

    Criminal prosecution

    There are a number of offences under the Act which can lead to a criminal prosecution. The main offences are:
  • Causing an animal to suffer unnecessarily.
  • Administering poison to an animal.
  • Arranging or attempting to arrange an animal fight, including publicising, taking money for entry to, or betting on such a fight.
  • Failing to ensure the welfare needs of an animal are met.
  • Selling an animal to a person under 16 years old who is not accompanied by someone aged 16 or over.
  • Allowing an unaccompanied person under 16 years old to enter a competition in which they could win an animal as a prize.
  • Obstructing a local authority inspector or police constable from exercising their powers under the Act.

    If you are found guilty of an offence under the Act, you can be fined, sent to prison, have your animals taken away from you, and/or disqualified from keeping animals in the future.

    The Act increases the penalties available for the most serious offences. The maximum penalty is imprisonment for up to 51 weeks, or a fine of up to 20,000, or both.

    How will the Act be enforced?

    The Act gives some formal enforcement powers (such as the power of entry to certain kinds of premises, and the power to seize documents) to the police and ‘inspectors’. ‘Inspectors’ are people appointed by local authorities or, in England, by the Secretary of State (in England) or the National Assembly for Wales (in Wales) with responsibility for animal welfare. In practice this can mean a local authority employee with responsibility for animal welfare, or a State Veterinary Service (Animal Health) Officer.

    However, the law (like most laws) is a ‘common informer’s Act’. This means that anyone is allowed to bring a prosecution for an offence. In practice, as now, the RSPCA intends to investigate many offences relating to animal cruelty or welfare of domestic animals, and in some cases farmed animals, and bring prosecutions where appropriate. However, the RSPCA does not have formal enforcement powers such as power of entry or the power to seize documents. For more information, please see the RSPCA website.

    Defra, LACORS, the State Veterinary Service, the police, and the RSPCA are drawing up a ‘Statement of Intent’ which will set out the usual procedures for enforcement of the Act. When finalised, it will be available from this site.

    In broad terms, the SVS and local authorities will continue to take the lead on enforcement of farm animal welfare. The RSPCA will deal with most cases relating to companion and domestic animals. The police are likely to be involved only in cases involving very serious offences or issues of public order.

    Will the Act mean more red tape?

    The Government is committed to better regulation and this Act, and its secondary legislation, have been put together with that in mind.

    The Act updates, simplifies and consolidates existing law, so reducing red tape. It enables the Government to update existing licensing regimes relating to certain pet animals, many of which are outdated, burdensome and ill-focused.
    The main new provision of the Act, the duty of care to look after an animal’s welfare needs, should not make much difference to the way responsible pet owners care for their animals. The majority of animal owners already look after the welfare of their animals and will not be affected by the change. What it does mean is that the minority who do not apply good standards can be dealt with more effectively through the use of improvement notices or criminal proceedings where appropriate.

    What is secondary legislation and why is there lots of information about it on this site?

    Some ‘primary legislation’, like the Animal Welfare Act 2006, enables the government to make ‘secondary legislation’. Secondary legislation is a kind of law (often more detailed and specific than primary legislation) that can be made (subject to Parliamentary scrutiny) in a simplified, quicker process.

    So, whilst the Act provides a general framework for the protection for animals, the government intends to make more specific laws for particular situations or kinds of animals where it is felt that this would be useful; such as what kind of procedures pet shops should follow to look after animals, or in what circumstances it is acceptable to dock a dog’s tail.

    The government also intends to introduce codes of practice to give more advice on how to care for certain kinds of animals such as cats, dogs, pet primates and game birds. Codes of practice are not legally binding in the same way as secondary legislation. They will offer guidance as to how to comply with the Animal Welfare Act. Breaching a code is not an offence in itself, but can be used as evidence in a court if a prosecution is brought.
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