The United Kingdom (UK)

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Brief Summary of United Kingdom Animal Law
Rebecca F. Wisch (2010)

The United Kingdom (UK) was the first country to pass animal welfare legislation. In 1822, the Parliament passed Richard Martin's Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. Nearly a century later in 1911, the Protection of Animals Act was enacted and remained in force, relatively untouched, for decades.

The Protection of Animals Act was the primary anti-cruelty legislation in the UK for almost a century. In 2007, the newly adopted Animal Welfare Act replaced the existing Protection of Animals Act. For the first time, the Act mandated a "duty of care" on pet owners. Not only are pet owners now required by law to provide for their companion animals' basic needs such as food and water, but the Act also specifies veterinary care and a suitable environment. Under the former 1911 law, a duty of care was only given for farm animals.

Other important animal laws in the UK include The Pet Animals Act 1951, the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973 and 1991, and the Performing Animals Act 1925.

One important aspect of UK law is the issuing of "Codes of Practice" that accompany many of these laws. Codes of practice provide practical guidance for people to help understand provisions of the law. While violation of a code of practice does not make a person liable under the associated law, violation of a code of practice can be relied upon to establish liability. Alternatively, they can also be relied upon to refute liability or to show compliance with a law.



Overview of UK Cruelty Law
Alan Bates (2002); updated by Rebecca F. Wisch (2011)

Animals Covered by the Cruelty Law

In the original 1911 act, former Section 15 defined “animal” to mean “any domestic or captive animal.” The offences of cruelty therefore protected any animal that was either domestic or captive. This definition, however, failed to cover any undomesticated (wild) animals.

The new 2006 Animal Welfare Act now defines "animal" as "any vertebrate other than man" excluding animals in their "foetal or embryonic form."

Some sections of the act are limited to only "protected animals." An animal is a "protected animal" if:

(a) it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands,

(b) it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary
basis, or

(c) it is not living in a wild state

Notably, the Act also covers farm stock in the duty of care provision.

Prohibited Offences

1. Unnecessary Suffering

A person commits an offence if he or she commits an act, or fails to act, and this causes a protected animal to experience "unnecessary suffering." A person can also commit an offense if he or she is responsible for an animal (not limited in Section 4(2)(a) to a "protected animal") and commits and act or fails to act, and this causes unnecessary suffering.

2. Mutilation

As with the above unnecessary suffering provision, this section is limited to either protected animals or an animal for which a person is responsible. A person who carries out a "prohibited procedure" (defined as "interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structure of the animal, otherwise than for the purpose of its medical treatment") commits an offence.

3. Docking of Dogs' Tails

This section prohibits the non-medically necessary docking of dogs' tails. The Act excludes certified working dogs no more than 5 days old.

4. Administration of Poisons

A person commits an offence if, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, he or she administers any poisonous or injurious drug or substance to a protected animal, knowing it is poisonous or injurious.

5. Animal Fighting

Actions prohibited under the animal fighting prohibition include:

  • knowingly receiving money for admission to an animal fight;
  • knowingly publicizing a proposed animal fight;
  • providing information about an animal fight with the intention of enabling or encouraging attendance at the fight;
  • making or accepting a bet on the outcome or occurrence of an animal fight
  • taking part in an animal fight
  • possession of animal fighting paraphernalia
  • keeping or training of animals used for fighting
  • keeping of premises used for fighting

The section also prohibits being present at an animal fight without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, and videotaping of a fight.

What Constitutes “Unnecessary Suffering”?

Whether an animal has suffered is a plainly a question of fact. Where it is not unquestionably 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, who adopted an established definition of “cruelly” as meaning “the unnecessary abuse of an animal”, 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.

The Offences of Cruelty under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960

Section 1 of the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 makes it an offence for any person being the owner or having charge of control of any animal to without reasonable cause or excuse abandon it, whether permanently or not, in circumstances likely to cause the animal any unnecessary suffering, or cause or procure or, being the owner, permit it to be so abandoned.

What Constitutes Abandonment?

To obtain a conviction for the offence of abandonment, the prosecution must prove that the defendant had relinquished, or wholly disregarded, or given up his duty to care for the animal. Where a person responsible for an animal leaves it by the side of the road and drives away, or is absent temporarily and makes no arrangements for the animal’s welfare, it may be relatively easy to say that he has abandoned it. Where a person leaves the animal for a period and makes some, albeit inadequate, arrangements, however, it will probably not be possible to obtain a conviction for abandonment, because the defendant has not totally disregarded his duty of care.

Exempt Activities

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 contains some exclusions in its scope of coverage. These are:

  • Section 58: Scientific Research: Nothing in this Act applies to anything lawfully done under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (c. 14).
  • Section 59: Fishing
  • Section 60: Crown activities

Duty to Provide Care

Section 9 states that a person commits an offense if he or she "does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice."

These needs include:

(a) its need for a suitable environment,

(b) its need for a suitable diet,

(c) its  need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns,

(d) any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and

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


A person may now be fined up to £20,000 or sent to prison for up to 51 weeks, or both, if he or she is cruel to an animal or does not provide for an animal's welfare needs. In addition, Section 34 states that a person convicted of cruelty may be banned ("disqualified" under the Act) from owning animals.

Codes of Practice

In the UK, codes of practice give owners and keepers practical guidance on how to meet the welfare needs of their animals. While violation of a code of practice is not itself a violation of the law, it can be used as evidence in cruelty proceedings. Alternatively, complinace with a code of practice can be used to counter a cruelty prosecution (used as "negative liability" under Section 14(4)(b) of the law). The codes for the 2006 Animal Welfare Act apply only to England (Wales and Scotland have their own codes). The codes are published by the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).


Related articles

The Ethical Case For European Legislation Against Fur Farming, The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, 13 Animal Law 147 (2006).

In recent years, several member states in the European Union enacted legislation to regulate or prohibit fur farming. This article calls for further action to ban the practice throughout the European Union. The Author notes animals’ inabilities to protect their own interests and the role of law to protect these vulnerable interests. The Author concludes by responding to the objections of fur farming proponents, ultimately finding no legitimate justification for the documented suffering of animals raised on fur farms.

Related cases

Table of UK Cases

Related laws

Animal Welfare Act of 2006

Code of practice for the welfare of cats,

Code of practice for the welfare of dogs,

Code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkies, and their hybrids,

Code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates,

Pet Animals Act 1951: An Act to Regulate the Sale of Pet Animals

Table of UK related laws, generally

Related Links

Web Center Topic Areas:

UK Regulation of the Selling of Pet Animals

EU-US Comparative Cruelty/Farming Laws (2003)

EU-US Comparative Laws: 2003 - 2009

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