Dog bites, dog attacks and UK law - A guide

Recent research suggests that dog attacks are on the increase. Whether this is due to an actual increase in incidents, or just that people are increasingly likely to seek medical help after an incident, is unclear.

Fuelled by sensationalised tabloid reports, there is a good deal of scaremongering about this sensitive issue. Fortunately, extreme sanctions are only applied in very serious cases. In most cases, the authorities have considerable leeway when taking formal action, such as control orders and fines.

This article looks at the laws concerning ‘dangerous’ dogs, and the consequences for an owner and their dog, if an incident does occur.

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What is the legislation for dog attacks?

There are numerous laws and regulations concerning dog ownership in the UK.

The legal consequences of a dog biting or attacking another person or animal are set out in two key pieces of legislation:

Historical laws

Some of the country’s earliest laws relate to penalties for dog bites.

Under Saxon law, a fine of six shillings was owed by the owner should their dog “bite or tear a man”. The fine increased to 10 and then 30 shillings for second and third ‘misdeeds’.

If the dog do more misdeeds, and the owner keep him, let him make amends according to the full sum for wounds.”

The Metropolitan Police Act 1839 & The Dogs Act 1871

The Metropolitan Police Act made an owner of an ‘unmuzzled ferocious dog’ liable to pay a fine of 40 shillings for attacks against a ‘person, horse or other animal’.

The Dogs Act 1871 is arguably the first piece of ‘modern’ law specifically concerning dogs in the UK, and the term ‘Dogs Act’ is often used as a catch-all for this Act and all subsequent dog-related laws.

Section 2 of the Dogs Act 1871 is still in force and grants the power to local authorities to order ‘dangerous’ dogs to be destroyed or ‘kept under control’. Councils can also issue fines to owners of dangerous dogs under this Act.

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was rushed through Parliament after a series of fatal dog attacks and remains controversial almost 30 years later.

The Act comprises two key parts:

The first part made it a criminal offence for dogs to be ‘dangerously out of control’ in public. An animal is considered ‘dangerously out of control’ if it causes injury to a person or animal, or causes someone to reasonably fear they could be attacked.

The second part outlined the breed-specific legislation (BSL). The BSL made it unlawful to own certain breeds outright and restricted the ownership of certain other breeds. If a dog was (or was suspected to be) a banned breed, the animal could be confiscated and destroyed.

The Animals Act 1971

The wording of this Act has been criticised by judges as ‘opaque’, but the purpose of the Animals Act appears to be that animal owners, including dog owners, should be liable for damage or injury caused by their animal.

The common law principle of negligence already ensured that ‘negligent’ owners could be sued for compensation if their dog injuries someone. The 1971 Act may have extended this right to ensure owners would be liable even if they weren’t necessarily negligent.

Recent amendments

The Dangerous Dogs Act was amended in 2014 to include dog attacks on private property.

The ownership of dogs strictly for guard dog use is now limited, and owners are now likely to be liable if their dog bites someone, even a trespasser, on their own property. A defence is available if the family pet attacks an intruder inside the house.

What could happen if my dog bites someone?

Under UK law, a range of penalties could be applied following an incident involving your dog. These include:

  • A fine of up to £1,000.
  • Control orders including banning an animal from certain specific locations or types of places, and requiring an animal to be kept on a lead or wear a muzzle in public.
  • A short custodial sentence.
  • A lifetime dog ownership ban.
  • An order to confiscate or destroy an animal.

The severity of the penalty will depend on a range of factors. Mitigating circumstances are considered by the authorities when they decide whether to take action and what penalties to apply. These factors include:

  • Does the dog, or the owner, have a history of aggressive behaviour?
  • Was the dog provoked?
  • Did the owner take steps to prevent the attack, such as issuing a warning?
  • Did the victim of the attack put themselves in danger, e.g. by trying to separate two dogs fighting?

The authorities are reluctant to apply serious sanctions, especially for first offences. The application of the rules also varies across the UK, and some local authorities take a much stricter line than others.

Can I claim injury compensation if I have been attacked by a dog?

Maybe. If you have been bitten or attacked by a dog, you may have a right to claim compensation.

If the attack resulted from the dog owner’s negligence, and your injuries were serious or have led to long-term scarring or loss of function, you are likely to have a strong case. Examples of negligence on the part of an owner include where a dog with a history of aggressive or unpredictable behaviour has been allowed to roam in public without a lead, or where an owner has failed to take prompt, reasonable steps to control a visibly stressed or aggressive animal.

You may still be able to claim compensation in more ambiguous cases where negligence is harder to prove. You should seek legal advice as soon as possible to discuss your options.

Read more:

Claiming compensation for a dog bite injury

Advice for dog owners

If you are concerned that your dog may become aggressive in new or unpredictable situations, you should seek the professional advice of an animal behaviourist or dog trainer.

Not all pet insurance policies include cover for legal costs and compensation relating to animal attacks, so you should check whether your policy includes this protection. An injured victim could claim compensation totalling £1,000s for even a relatively minor incident, and legal cover can significantly reduce the financial burden of a claim.

You should make sure you check the small print of your policy and follow the required steps to the letter if an incident occurs. You could risk voiding your policy if, for example, you admit responsibility for an attack at the scene.

More generally, you should try to avoid the situations that can lead your dog to become fearful or aggressive. Be aware of your dog’s moods and triggers, and act at the earliest sign that something could be wrong.

Even the best-trained, best-behaved animal can become aggressive in the wrong circumstances, and it is impossible to completely remove the risk of an attack. Nonetheless, taking proactive action, including training and appropriate insurance, is the best way to prevent a serious incident from occurring and to reduce the seriousness of consequences following an incident.

How can Quittance help?

If you have been injured by a dog we can help. For more information please see our dog bite injury claim advice page.

Chris Salmon, Director

Chris Salmon, Director