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How even the most responsible pet owners may unknowingly be breaking animal welfare laws

Friday March 31st 2017

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
― Mahatma Gandhi

In today’s pet-mad culture, it’s safe to say that Gandhi’s teachings have not been ignored, with animal welfare playing a more prominent role in society than ever before.

In its simplest form, animal welfare refers to the relationships people have with animals and the duty they have to ensure animals in their care are treated humanely and responsibly. The “Animal Welfare Acts of England and Wales, and Scotland recently established a new principle of “duty of care,” making humans legally responsible for the five fundamental needs of animals under their ownership: housing, diet, behaviour, social interactions and health.

However, The PDSA Animal Welfare 2016 report stated nearly two thirds (65%) of the population are not aware of their legal duties towards the animals in their charge, which begs the question, does this mean the majority of UK pet owners are breaking the law out of ignorance?


According to the British Veterinary Association 15% of pet owners are not registered with a vet practice. It's hard to see how it's possible for anyone to fulfil their legal obligations of caring for pets properly without some veterinary input, even if just for basic vaccinations and the simplest forms of parasite control.

There are plenty of low-cost veterinary centres across the UK to help economically underprivileged owners. Money is not the driving factor behind this issue – it is more simple than that: it's a lack of awareness that veterinary input is vital to deliver prime animal welfare. Pets need to see a vet occasionally, just for the sake of checking their overall wellbeing. Claiming an animal doesn’t need general check-ups is not just neglectful, it does not comply with animal health welfare regulations.

What owners choose to feed their pets can also cause issues for their animals and a deadly diet of treats and table scraps, alongside couch-potato régimes, is fueling a pet obesity time bomb. “ An alarming 45 percent of UK pet dogs are overweight or obese, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) ” . As with humans, being heavier than ideal can lead to numerous health issues, such as arthritis or diabetes mellitus.


Animal abuse comes in multiple forms, but can be simplified into two main categories: abuse occurring due to negligence or harm resulting from deliberate acts. However, the lines are sometimes blurred between what is intentional and what is not.

In the case of neglect, abuse can be the result of ignorance, (i.e. when a pet owner doesn’t recognise the need for veterinary care). Many are also unaware that neglect can be categorised as an owner failing to seek help for a pet with dangerous behavioural tendencies.

In 2016, 51 percent of vets reported seeing an increase in pets who had been bitten by a dog over the last two years, and 58 percent reported an increase in dog behavioural issues. Many owners often don’t realise that any noticeable behavioural problems need to be resolved as quickly as possible, to prevent them from getting progressively worse.

Failure to do so is not just neglect on the owner’s part, but also breaks t “breaks the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act ” Crime and Policing Act, ongoing since October 2014 and the “Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 ” . Owners are considered responsible for a dog of any breed ‘acting dangerously in a public or non-public place’. Dangerous dogs may be destroyed at the discretion of the court, while owners can be banned from keeping pets in the future.

An owner can be punished with a prison sentence of up to 6 months or an unlimited fine if caught with a dangerous dog. In more serious cases, such as a dog injuring someone, the maximum prison sentence is extended to five years, or even up to 14 years, in the case of death incurred from an attack.

Whilst 92 percent of dogs have now been microchipped, (an increase from 70 percent in 2011), this still shows not all pets meet today’s legal requirements. If an owner fails to microchip their pet they will be given 21 days to do so, after which they can face a fine.

There are other details to microchipping though, which many may not realise are highly important, and that pet owners are fully accountable for. For example, all owners need to make sure details on a microchip are up to date and match the information on your insurance policy. If you adopt a rescue dog you’ll need to check if it already has a chip, and then update it, otherwise you could be charged


Bringing Felix or Fido in for a fun day at the office? Whilst most owners can think of nothing better than having their pets at work with them, they can only be in the workplace so long as no specific laws are breached. Any workplace dealing with food or providing health or medical services may find themselves in breach of the law if there are animals in the workplace, excepting circumstances where an employee requires a guide dog.

Employees who need a guide dog to assist them should be able to bring their guide dog with them to work. The employer may need to make some adjustments around the workplace to ensure it is suitable for the dog and the employer may need to be flexible to allow the employee to care for the dog whilst it is in the workplace.


Buying pets from inappropriate sources is another major concern. Austria has just banned all online announcements advertising pets for sale and vets in the UK are keen to follow suit. “ Kennel Club research ” for Puppy Awareness Week, revealed a shocking one in ten people bought a 'mail order pup' from the internet online or from a newspaper advert, without seeing it first. This is a classic sign that the puppy has come from a puppy farm, as the breeder does not want buyers to see the state of the pup or the conditions it was raised in.

It seems many don’t take the time needed to research reputable pet sources. More output to this would help them to realise puppy farms are substandard commercial breeding facilities where dogs are kept and bred without regards for health, welfare, socialisation or ultimate placement.

Every pet owner has a legal responsibility to provide for these specific needs, to safeguard animals under human attention are as happy and healthy as possible. If owners do not fulfil their legal responsibilities to look after their pets properly, they are breaking the law. A plea of ignorance (“I didn't realise that was my responsibility…”) just isn't a mitigating factor.


Notes to editors:
This article is for information only and should not be construed as legal advice; if you require further information on compliance on UK law regarding animal protection, please seek further advice from an appropriately qualified professional.