Animal Liability

Anyone who keeps an animal is duty bound, even if they are considered to be a non-dangerous species to prevent them from causing harm to others. Animal liability defined under civil laws and is governed by tort law relating to disputes between two parties. Any disputes which relate to liability for animals is dealt with through the civil courts.

There are several factors which will be considered when deciding liability.


If the owner or keeper of an animal has acted negligently they will be liable. Negligence in this sense would mean failing to restrain an animal which then causes damage to property or people.

When proving negligence, the claimant will have to prove four elements:

When applying the tort of negligence in common law, it is possible identify a breach when this relates to the owner/keeper of an animal. There are however certain guidelines which govern liability in relation to animals and the best routes to pursue a claim.

There are also certain pieces of legislation which can be applied to liability for animals cases:

The Animals Act 1971

This Act clearly defines the difference between a non-dangerous and a dangerous species.

In line with Section 2(1) of the Animals Act 1971, if an animal is deemed to be dangerous and it causes damage the owner for the dog will be liable for the damage. Liability for any damage will also apply if the owner or keeper of the dog was at fault.

An animal is classed as being a dangerous species if:

  • It is not an animal which is commonly domesticated in the country
  • Once it is fully grown is likely to cause severe damage unless it is suitably restrained

When bringing a liability case there are also guidelines on what constitutes a keeper of an animal:

The owner in possession

  • Where the owner is under 16 years of age, the head of the household
  • The current keeper or owner who loses possession or ownership until such times that a new keeper is found

There is a common misunderstanding in the Animals Act 1971 when it comes to strict liability. It is often assumed that the damage has to be typically associated with that animal such as gorging or biting. This is incorrect. The law applies to any damage caused by the animal.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976

This legislation states that the keeper of a wild animal considered to be ‘dangerous’ must take out relevant insurance policies against liability for any damage caused to a third party. Furthermore, the keeper must hold a relevant licence which is issued by the local authority.

Non-Dangerous Species
Animals which fall into the non-dangerous category include cattle, horses and dogs. Under Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971, where damage is caused by an animal that belongs to a non-dangerous species, liability rests with the keeper of the animal.

To prove liability under this Act, several things need to be established:

  • If not restrained, the damage caused by the animal is likely to occur
  • The likelihood of this damage is due to the characteristics of the animal which are not typical of animals that belong to the same species
  • The owner or keeper of the animal is aware of these characteristics

The Animals Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill

When this amendment was introduced, changes had been made to the wording of Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971. These changes were necessary to clarify the circumstances where liability applied in relation to a non-dangerous species. This amendment bill stated that the owners of a non-dangerous species is entirely liable for any harm or damage caused by the animal when they are aware of the potential damage that the animal could cause.

This could be due to the temperament of the animal or due to specific scenarios, such as when the animals are protecting their young.

As a result certain restrictions were placed on liability in respect of non-dangerous animals.

Suitable Defences
When defending a case concerning liability for animals, there are three main defences that can be provided. These relate to both non-dangerous and dangerous species:
Contributory Negligence
This can be used when the damage was the fault of the claimant. Section 5 of the Animals Act 1971 is applicable here.
Under Section 5 of the Animals Act 1971, there is a voluntary assumption of the risk. However this is not applicable if the risk is associated with the individuals employment.
The third defence is where the individual who suffered the damage was trespassing and the animal that caused the damage was not deliberately kept to protect property. If the animal was kept to protect property (such as a guard dog) the defendant can make a defence if the protection was not deemed to be unreasonable.

Dog Bites and Liability

By far, the most common cases which relate to animal liability concern dog bites. Where an owner is prosecuted as a direct result of the actions of their animal, the legislation contained within the Animals Act 1971 is applicable. The only exception to this rule is if the dog is one of the breeds defined by the Dangerous Dogs Act.

If your dog bites someone you may be liable, either under negligence or the Animals Act 1971. In this instance, the relevant dog laws state that it is not required to prove that the owner or keeper of the dog acted wrongly if the damage was caused by the dog.

To complicate matters further, if the dog was known to exhibit certain characteristics, the injuries sustained must have been a direct result of these characteristics. Sometimes, animals will only display certain aggressive characteristics at particular times of the year or when the dog is on guard or being transported.

When establishing a claim for a dog bite, the following must be proven:

  • The damage is the kind which was likely to be caused by the animal unless it was suitably restrained
  • There was a high likelihood of the damage being severe, if the animal had the opportunity to cause damage and the dog displayed certain characteristics which made it more dangerous
  • The ‘dangerous’ characteristics of the dog were known to its owner

If the claimant can prove all three of the above, you will be liable for the dogs actions and face the consequences in a civil court.

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