What do I need to know about cruelty to animals and the law?

What do I need to know about cruelty to animals and the law?

In 2007, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 came into force in England and Wales, bringing together more than 20 pieces of legislation and leading to a complete overhaul of pet abuse laws. Under the Act, it is not only against the law to be cruel to an animal, but it places a duty on animal owners to ensure that their welfare needs are met.

Animal Welfare Act 2006

The Act places a responsibility on owners of animals to ensure that their animals’ welfare needs are adequately met, including:

  • providing a suitable environment to live in;
  • ensuring that they have a suitable diet;
  • protecting them from pain, suffering, injury and disease;
  • being housed with, or away from, other animals (depending on its needs); and
  • being allowed to express itself and exhibit normal behaviour patterns.

The Act also raises the legal age at which children can buy animals to 16 and makes it illegal to give animals away as prizes to unaccompanied children under this age. Cutting or removing animals’ tails for cosmetic reasons is now banned under the Act, as are some other acts of animal mutilation.

The Act defines ‘animal’ as any living vertebrate animal; however, parts of the Act only apply to particular ‘protected’ animals or animals for which someone is ‘responsible’.

To qualify as a ‘protected animal’, the animal has to be domesticated in the British Isles; permanently or temporarily under a person’s control; or not living in a wild state. If someone is the owner of an animal; a parent or guardian of a child under 16 who is responsible for an animal; or in charge of an animal, they are held under the Act to be ‘responsible’ for the animal and consequently under a duty to provide for its welfare needs, as above.

What happens if someone breaks the law?

If someone does not comply with the Act, they may be subject to either an improvement notice or a criminal prosecution.

An improvement notice will set out what action is required by the owner of the animal to improve its welfare, the time limit within which this must be done, and the consequences of non-compliance. If a person does not comply with the improvement notice, they may face criminal prosecution.

A criminal prosecution can be brought for a number of offences under the Act, including:

  • causing an animal to suffer unnecessarily;
  • arranging, or attempting to arrange, an animal fight;
  • administering poison to an animal;
  • failing to ensure that the animal’s welfare needs are met (as set out above); and
  • selling an animal to a person under 16 who is unaccompanied.

If you are convicted of an offence under the Act, you may have your animals taken away from you or be banned from keeping animals, or both; fined up to £20,000; or sent to prison for a maximum term of 51 weeks.

The Act can be enforced by local councils, the police and animal-health officers. However, if you suspect that some form of animal cruelty may be taking place, you should contact the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (RSPCA).

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