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Offences Involving Domestic and Captive Animals

|Legal Guidance



This legal guidance provides Prosecutors with information to assist in reviewing and prosecuting offences involving domestic and captive animals. This guidance also gives information on private prosecutions led by the RSPCA, including considerations when taking over and discontinuing such prosecutions. Prosecutors are reminded that separate legal guidance exists on wildlife offences and dangerous dogs.

Casework handling

In order to institute proceedings under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 the Prosecutor must obtain written consent from the Chief Constable of Police, the owner of the livestock, or the occupier of the land where the incident occurred.


Animal Welfare Act 2006: Prevention of Harm

Much of the law and practice concerning animal welfare is contained in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This Act came into force on 6 April 2007 and repealed a number of Acts (see Schedule 4).  

For the purposes of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, an animal is a ‘protected animal’ if:   

This section has no associated Explanatory Notes 

  • It is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands, 
  • It is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or 
  • It is not living in a wild state. 

In this Act, having responsibility for animals includes: 

  • Both on a temporary and permanent basis  
  • Being in charge of it 
  • A person who owns the animal 
  • Where they are responsible for a person under the age of 16 who cares for the animal  

Section 62 states ‘suffering’ means physical or mental suffering.   

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a summary offence to: 

  • Cause unnecessary suffering to a protected animal or, if being responsible for a protected animal, to permit any unnecessary suffering to be caused to any such animal (Section 4).  
  • Carry out or cause a prohibited procedure (mutilation or interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structure of the animal) to be carried out on a protected animal. An offence is also committed where a person having responsibility for an animal allows another person to carry out such an act failing to take reasonable steps to prevent that from happening (Section 5).  
  • Remove the whole or any part of a dog's tail other than for medical treatment. An offence is also committed where a person having responsibility for an animal allows another person to carry out such an activity (Section 6).  
  • Administer any poisonous or injurious drug to a protected animal. An offence is also committed where a person having responsibility for an animal allows another person to administer poisonous or injurious drugs (Section 7).  
  • Cause an animal fight to take place, knowingly receive money, publicise, provide information, bet, take part, keep or train an animal for fighting or keep any premises for use in an animal fight. Similarly an offence is committed if a person is present at an animal fight without lawful authority or reasonable excuse (Section 8) 
  • Knowingly supply, publish or show a video recording of an animal fight. This section does not apply where the video recording is of an animal fight that takes place outside Great Britain or took place before the commencement date of 6 April 2007. Furthermore, the exemption applies where the video recording is for inclusion in a programme service (Section 8). 
  • Fail to take such steps as are reasonable to ensure the needs of an animal, which a person has responsibility for, are met to the extent required by good practice (Section 9) 

Section 4-Unnecessary Suffering 

To prove an offence under Section 4, the CPS, RSPCA or any person bringing a private prosecution, has to prove: 

  • The animals in question are protected animals under s.2 of the Act; 
  • The particular appellant's act or failure to act caused the animal to suffer unnecessarily; 
  • The particular appellant either knew or ought to have known that his or her act or failure to act would cause that suffering or be likely to do so; and 
  • That the suffering was unnecessary (R. (on the application of Gray) v Aylesbury Crown Court [2013] EWHC 500).  

Section 8-Animal Fight 

Section 8 defines ‘animal fight’ as an occasion on which a protected animal is placed with an animal, or with a human, for the purpose of fighting, wrestling or baiting. For an offence of animal fighting to be committed contrary to Section 8, the animal with which the protected animal was placed had to be the subject of some control or restraint by some person(s) connected with that activity, or some other artificial constraint so that its ability to escape was prevented.  

Taking a protected animal into land or woods where there might or would be wild animals, and then letting the dogs go in the hope that they would hunt and then attack those wild animals, leading to a fight, could not amount to a "placing" for the purposes of fighting under Section 8. A fight could not be the by-product of a chance meeting, but had to be a contrived or artificial creation specifically for the purpose of fight, and during which the other animal had no natural means of escape (RSPCA v McCormick [2016] EWHC 928). 

The tenet of Section 8 was aimed at organised and controlled animal fights, such as dog fights, but, while the involvement of money is an aggravating factor, it is not a necessary ingredient for the offending (RSPCA v McCormick [2016] EWHC 928).  

Section 9-Welfare 

Under Section 9 of the Act, those responsible for animals have a duty to ensure their welfare. A person commits an offence under Section 9 if he does not take reasonable steps to meet the needs of an animal, which include: 

  • A suitable environment 
  • A suitable diet 
  • To be able to exhibit normal behavioural patterns  
  • To be housed with, or apart from, other animals 
  • To be protected from pain, suffering, injury or disease  

This does not prohibit the destruction of an animal in an appropriate and humane manner.  

To prove an offence under Section 9, the CPS or RSPCA has to prove therefore: 

  • That the appellant has a responsibility for the animal under Section 3 of the Act;  
  • The steps that would have been taken by a reasonably competent and humane person in all the circumstances to meet that animal's needs to the extent required by good practice; and 

That the appellant had failed to undertake some or all of those steps. 

Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars) (Wales) Regulations 2010 

These regulations are made under Section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and prohibit the use of electronic collars designed to administer an electric shock on cats and dogs. These regulations only apply to Wales.  

A person guilty of an offence under Section 2 is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 51 weeks, a fine not exceeding level five on the standard scale or both.  

Wild Animals 

It is an offence to mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering (Section 1 Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996). Please see the separate legal guidance Wildlife Offences.  


The person in charge of a dog who attacks or chases livestock commits a summary offence under Section 1 of the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953.  

It is a summary offence for a person to use, or permit the use of, a guard dog to protect any premises unless a handler capable of controlling the dog is also present and the dog is under his control, or unless the dog is secured so that it is not at liberty to go freely about the premises (Section 1 of the Guard Dogs Act 1975

There is separate legal guidance on Dangerous Dogs

Public Interest

A prosecution may not be required where there has been minimal risk to public safety and/or to the welfare of an animal.

An animal which is in the ownership of a person may be classed as an item of property. Refer to Charging Practice below. In those circumstances the public interest criteria relating to the prosecution of offences for dishonesty and damage to property become relevant.

Charging Practice

Every instance of unnecessary suffering charged under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 creates a separate offence; but one summons may cover the ill-treatment of several animals.

An animal can be classified as "property" or "goods" under the terms of the Theft Acts 1968 and 1978 and a prosecution may thus be appropriate for offences of theft, handling, and obtaining property by deception or blackmail. For more information, see the legal guidance on Theft Act Offences.

An animal may also be classed as property capable of being "damaged or destroyed" under the terms of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. A charge of criminal damage may be appropriate in the event of the death or injury of an animal owned by someone other than the Defendant. However, prosecution for the cruel ill treatment of that same animal under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 may also be appropriate. For more information, see the legal guidance on Criminal Damage.

Time Limits

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 extended time limits for prosecutions. Section 31 provides that notwithstanding anything that is in Section 127(1) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, a Magistrates' court may try an information if it is laid:

  • Before the end of the period of three years beginning with the date of the offence; and
  • Before the end of the period of six months, beginning with the date on which the evidence which the Prosecutor thinks is sufficient to justify the proceedings comes to his knowledge.

The ‘prosecutor’ in Section 31 applies to anyone initiating a prosecution under the Act, including the RSPCA (Lamont-Perkins v RSPCA [2012] EWHC 1002).

Prosecutors are reminded that for the purposes of the above, a certificate signed by, or on behalf of the Prosecutor with the date that sufficient evidence came to his knowledge is conclusive evidence of that date. Furthermore, the signed certificate shall be so acknowledged unless the contrary is proven.


The revised guidelines for offences in the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines were published on 24 January 2017 and came into force on 24 April 2017. The Guidelines cover offences of animal cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

In relation to animal cruelty, the guideline aims to ensure that the most serious cases lead to prison sentences, and that these sentences are of an appropriate length. For the first time, additional aggravating factors of ‘use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty’ and ‘animal being used in public service or as an assistance dog’ were included, the latter meaning that police dogs or horses are specifically highlighted.

The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or six months’ imprisonment.

The separate legal guidance on Theft Act Offences and Criminal Damage will cover sentencing where offences relating to domestic/captive animals are charged under these Acts.

Relations with the RSPCA

The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has a long established expertise in both the investigation and prosecution of cases involving animal welfare and has built up a useful body of precedent and case law.

The RSPCA brings private prosecutions. For more information please see the legal guidance on private prosecutions.

The CPS may be approached by Defendants or defence solicitors who wish the CPS to take over and discontinue RSPCA prosecutions. The CPS is able to do so in accordance with the legal guidance on private prosecutions. In these circumstances, however, Prosecutors should contact the RSPCA Prosecutor dealing with the case and ask for any advice provided by counsel and any investigation reports prepared by the RSCPA. Prosecutors will also need to liaise with any solicitors sub-contracted by the RSPCA to deal with their prosecutions.

General guidance may be obtained from:

Head of Prosecutions RSPCA Headquarters Wilberforce Way Southwater Horsham West Sussex, RH13 9RS


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