The United Kingdom (UK)

Share |

Brief Summary of United Kingdom Animal Law
Alice Collinson (2018)

The main piece of animal protection legislation in the UK is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which came into force in 2007, and applies to England and Wales. Substantially similar legislation is in place for the rest of the UK; the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.

These Acts are underpinned by secondary legislation in the form of Regulations and Codes of Practice, which are equally important. A key example is the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. Codes of Practice provide practical guidance in complying with the Animal Welfare Acts. 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, under the Acts.

The Acts contain various cruelty offences, the most significant being the offence of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal defined as “protected” under the Acts. Other offences include animal fighting and poisoning an animal. It is also an offence to fail to provide adequate care for animals for which a person is responsible. These duties of care concern domestic animals to include companion and farm animals. The list is not exhaustive, but includes consideration of an animal’s suitable environment, diet, housing and protection from disease.

Other important animal protection laws in the UK include: the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, the Hunting Act 2004 and the Zoo licensing Act 1981.

Overview of UK Cruelty Law
Alice Collinson (2018)

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.


Related articles

Published in the UK Centre for Animal Law - Journal of Animal Law:

Contemporary Dog-Fighting Law in the UK, Dr Angus Nurse & Dr Simon Harding, Journal of Animal Law, (February 2016) (available via

Wild Animals as Pets; The Case for Review of the Pet Animals Act 1951, Journal of Animal Law, (February 2016) (available via

The Link Between Animal Abuse, Domestic Violence and Juvenile Crime: an Anglo-American Perspective, Alison Howey, Journal of Animal Law, (Summer 2016) (available via

Analysing the Arguments For and Against Legal liability For Killing an Animal Without Proof of Unnecessary Suffering, Dr Gareth Spark, Journal of Animal Welfare Law (2015) (available via

Striking the Balance: The Dangerous Dogs Act, Dog Welfare and Public Protection, Dr Gareth Spark, Journal of Animal Law, (Spring/Summer/Autumn 2013) (available via

A Manifesto for Wildlife Law Reform: assessing the Law Commission’s Proposals for Wildlife Law Reform, Dr Angus Nurse, Journal of Animal Law, (Autumn 2012/Winter 2013) (available via

Beyond Farm Gates: Criminology, the Agricultural Industry and Animal Abuse, Dr Jane Jones, Journal of Animal Law, (Spring/Summer 2012) (available via

Weighing the Necessity of Animal Suffering in Religious Slaughter: Religious Freedom Versus Consumer Choice and Animal Welfare, Deborah Rook, Journal of Animal Law, (Spring/Summer 2012) (available via

On the Leash: Controlling Dangerous Dogs, Christina Warner, Journal of Animal Law, (Spring/Summer 2012) (available via

Undercover Evidence: The Use of Covertly Filmed Footage as Evidence in Animal Welfare Prosecutions, Alan Bates, Journal of Animal Law, (Autumn/Winter 2011) (available via

Sentencing in Animal Cruelty Cases, Sally Ann Case, Journal of Animal Law, (March 2011) (available via

The Zoo licensing Act 1981 and the Welfare of Animals in UK Zoos, Chris Draper, Journal of Animal Law, (March 2011) (available via

The Welfare of Badgers - Is the Law Suitable for Purpose? Bridget Martin, Journal of Animal Law, (Winter/Spring 2010) (available via

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 - An Overview, Paula Sparks, Journal of Animal Law (2007) (available via

Prosecution Under the Hunting Act 2004, Simon Lillington and Lucy Davis, Journal of Animal Law (2007) (available via

Other Publications:

Suffering in Non-Human Animals, Peter Fordyce, Global Journal of Animal Law, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2017), (available at:

Protecting Wild Animals from Unnecessary Suffering, Dr Gareth Spark, Journal of Environmental Law 26 pp473-494 (2014),

Property Status and The Limited Impact of Welfare Legislation for Farm Animals, Lee McConnell, Journal of Animal and Natural Resource Law, Volume IX (2013)

Why We Need an Animal Abuser Registry, Noel Sweeney, Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, (10 May 2013),

Developing a Common Law of Animal Welfare: Offences Against Animals and Offences Against Persons Compared, Darren Calley, Crime, Law and Social Change, 55(5), pp.421-436 (2011),

“Unnecessary Suffering”: The Cornerstone of Animal Protection Legislation Considered, Mike Radford, Criminal Law Review 1999 September: 702-713,


Related cases

List of UK Cases

Related laws


Complete of list of UK laws

Animal Welfare Act of 2006

Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006

Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011

Code of Practice:


Chickens (used for meat):

Chickens, laying hens:



Horses, ponies & donkeys:




Related Links

Web Center Topic Areas:

UK Regulation of the Selling of Pet Animals (note: some aspects of this topic have been superceded by the 2006 law)

External Links:

Explanatory Notes, Animal Welfare Act 2006, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra),

Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, Explanatory Notes,

Report: Brexit: Getting the Best Deal for Animals, produced by animal protection groups brought together through Wildlife and Countryside Link and the UK Centre for Animal Law (January 2018),

Brambell, F.W.R (1965) Report of the Technical Committee to Enquire into the Welfare of Animals Kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems, London, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office

Farmed animal welfare: The welfare of farmed animals (England) regulations 2007 - Guidance on the regulation, and

Law Reform Commission website,

Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (England),


Share |