Full Title Name:  Overview of UK Animal Protection Legislation

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Alice Collinson Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2018 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 0 Country of Origin:  England Northern Ireland Scotland United Kingdom Wales
Summary: This article provides an overview of animal cruelty offences and positive legal duties to promote animal welfare in the UK. These provisions are found in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applicable to England and Wales, and in corresponding legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Prohibited offences include "unnecessary suffering," mutilation, docking of dogs' tails, administration of poisons and animal fighting.'

The Political Landscape - Overview

Animal protection legislation is substantially similar, but not entirely uniform, across the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

This is because powers are transferred, or devolved, from the UK Parliament in London to a more local level in each of the UK constituents. The devolved legislatures are the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The legislatures have individual responsibility for animal protection laws. However, legislation across the constituents is substantially similar in many areas such as for farmed animals. This is partly due to European Union membership, which requires and directs the implementation of specific laws in respect of much animal welfare. There is however more variation in other areas of animal protection where there is less EU influence, such as for companion animals.

The primary legislation pertaining to the protection of domestic and captive animals across the UK is as follows:

  • England and Wales: Animal Welfare Act 2006
  • Scotland: Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006
  • Northern Ireland: Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011

Animals Protected Under the Legislation

Protections are provided via the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales, with similar, although not identical, legislation in the devolved jurisdictions of the UK, as noted above.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 defines “animal” as a ‘vertebrate other than man,’ and excludes animals in ‘foetal or embryonic form.” Key cruelty offences are largely limited to “protected” animals. Specifically, to be “protected” an animal must be determined to be under one of the following three scenarios: (a) of a kind commonly domesticated in the British Islands, (b) under human control whether on a temporary or permanent basis, or (c) not living in a wild state.

This includes, for example, feral cats and stray dogs; an animal held overnight at a shelter or; an escaped zoo animal.

Who Does the Animal Welfare Act 2006 Apply to?

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 imposes various duties of care on those deemed responsible for an animal. Responsibility includes straight ownership and being in charge of an animal. Further, a person who cares for another person under the age of 16 shall be treated as jointly responsible for any animal on their behalf. Any number of individuals can be legally responsible for an animal at any one time.

Prohibited Offences

1. Unnecessary Suffering

It is an offence to cause a protected animal unnecessary suffering by any act or failure to act. It is an offence whether the defendant knew, or reasonably ought to have known, that his/her act or omission was likely to lead to unnecessary suffering.

An offence is also committed where a person responsible for an animal fails to take reasonable steps to prevent another person (through that person’s act or failure to act) from causing unnecessary suffering to that animal.

2. Mutilation

This provision makes it an offence to carry out, or cause to carry out, a ‘prohibited procedure on a protected animal.’ An offence is also committed by a person if he/she is responsible for an animal, and fails to prevent another person from carrying out a prohibited procedure.

Medical treatment is excluded, and “mutilation” is defined as involving: ‘interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structure of the animal.’

3. Docking of Dogs’ Tails

Whilst there are exceptions for certified working dogs up to 5 days old, as defined in this section and separate Regulations, the docking of a dog’s tail for non-medical reasons is prohibited. Tail docking is defined as the removal of, or causing the removal of, ‘the whole or any part of a dog’s tail.’

4. Administration of Poisons

This section prohibits the administering of any ‘poisonous or injurious’ substance to a protected animal. The offence requires knowledge of the substance’s poisonous or injurious properties (to include knowledge that a substance taken in a certain quantity or manner may be poisonous, although may not ordinarily be defined as such).

Similar to the above offences, it is also an offence for a person responsible for an animal to fail to take reasonable steps to prevent that animal from being poisoned by another.

5. Animal Fighting

A prohibited animal fight is defined as a scenario where a protected animal is ‘placed with’ an animal, or human, for the ‘purpose of fighting, wrestling or baiting’

To be guilty of an offence the offender must have carried out one of the following actions: 

  • caused or attempted to cause an animal fight to take place;
  • knowingly received money for admission to an animal fight;
  • knowingly publicised a proposed fight;
  • provided information about an animal fight with the intention of enabling or encouraging attendance at a fight;
  • made or accepted a bet on the outcome of a fight;
  • taken part in an animal fight;
  • possessed anything intended for use in connection with a fight;
  • kept or trained an animal in connection with a fight; or
  • kept any premises for an animal fight.

It is also prohibited to attend an animal fight, or to knowingly: supply, publish, show, or possess with intention to supply, a video recording of an animal fight that took place in Great Britain (and since the Animal Welfare Act 2006’s commencement), without lawful authority or reasonable excuse.

6. Duty to Provide Care

Under Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a criminal offence to unreasonably fail to meet the needs of an animal for which one is responsible, in accordance with good practice. These requirements are not exhaustive but include consideration of an animal's need for:

(a) a suitable environment;

(b) a suitable diet;

(c) the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns;

(d) to be housed with or apart from other animals depending on the animal’s need and;

(e) to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

If an animal is abandoned, it would be an offence under this Section, as by abandoning an animal an individual fails to meet its needs, for example in failing to provide adequate food and water.

7. Enabling Powers

Under Section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the appropriate national authority (e.g. the Secretary of State in England) is provided with a general power to make secondary Regulations to promote the welfare of animals (or their progeny) for which a person is responsible. Associated penalties may also be created. Before Regulations are affirmed in parliament, interested persons must be consulted.

8. Codes of Practice

Codes of Practice are instrumental in providing practical guidance on how to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 as a responsible animal owner. Following appropriate consultation, these codes are created, and amended, by the appropriate national authority and made available to the public via the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate codes. While it is not an offence to fail to comply with these codes, evidence of failing to comply may be relied upon in establishing liability, or alternatively in negating liability, of an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Exempt Activities

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is limited in its scope by explicitly excluding scientific procedures lawfully done under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and anything which occurs in the ‘normal course of fishing.’


The maximum penalty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is either imprisonment for up to 6 months or a fine up to £20,000, or both. This addresses crimes of unnecessary suffering (s4), mutilation (s5), tail docking (s6), poisoning (s7) and animal fighting (s8).

Further penalties and ancillary powers include:

  • Improvement notices (Section 10)
  • Powers of entry including animals in distress (Sections 18-20, and Schedule 2)
  • Warrants (Sections 22-23, and 52)
  • Deprivation orders, concerning animals connected to an offence (Section 33)
  • Disqualification orders, banning certain dealings with animals (Section 34)
  • Seizure orders connected to disqualification (Section 35).

What Constitutes Unnecessary Suffering?

Whether an animal has suffered is a question of fact. Where it is not possible to infer from the circumstances of the case that an animal suffered, the prosecution will usually call expert testimony from a veterinary surgeon or animal behaviorist.

The leading case on what constitutes “unnecessary suffering” is Ford v. Wiley. Hawkins J stated:

‘To support a conviction then, two things must be proved - first, that pain or suffering has been inflicted in fact. Secondly, that it was inflicted cruelly, that is, without necessity, or, in other words, without good reason.’ Where no legitimate object exists in pursuit of which the suffering was inflicted, the suffering is clearly not necessary. Where, however, the suffering was inflicted in the pursuit of a legitimate object, there must be proportionality between the suffering caused and the benefit sought. The necessity of the defendant’s conduct is judged objectively, by the standards of a reasonably humane and caring person.


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