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Buying An Animal - Your Legal Rights

Having some legal training and spending my days researching and writing about animals I frequently get asked what people should do when they buy an animal either in a shop or from a private seller and something goes wrong.

So what are your rights when you buy an animal? If the worst happens and the animal is sick, dies, or isn’t what you thought you were buying what are your rights.

Are pets treated any different than any other purchase?

For the most no. An animal is personal property in the eyes of the law, and whilst internationally some courts have awarded damages for emotional distress this is unlikely to happen in the case of a newly purchased animal. So when purchasing a pet the same law applies as any other goods. Legally you have a similar standing if you buy a dog or a fish tank, or a camera.  

The main legislation this falls under is the Sale of Goods Act 1979, and this does offer you some protection.

Business sellers must sell goods of …

  • Satisfactory quality
  • Be fit for purpose
  • Match the description given by the seller.

For Private sellers the goods must match the description given, in any advert and any verbal description given.


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Business Sellers

Here things get a little bit difficult. If you go to a pet shop then clearly they are a business seller, but what if you go to some ones house and they are a breeder? If their intention is to make money from breeding that animal then they are a business seller. But it may not be clear what it is.

Example 1  

You respond to an advert for an angelfish for sale. When you get there you find the seller has 30 tanks and no sign of any breeding facilities. During your conversation he tells you he bought these from an importer along with hundreds of other fish. In this case he is probably operating a business.

Example 2

You respond to the same advert and the set up is the same, but this time he tells you that he had the bred them himself and has grown on the youngsters to choose the best ones for the local fish club competition. You get to see the parents and other fish he’s bred himself. In this case he probably is a private seller.

Satisfactory Quality and Fit for Purpose

What does this mean, so the law states that a reasonable person would think that the goods (animals in this case) are of good enough quality at the time of sale. For example…

Animals must be in good health, be the species of breed they are being sold as and as far as possible be from a good stock. However there is a couple of things to remember, if the animal you buy has visible defects (eyes or even limbs missing, things outside the breed standards, for example dogs with the wrong type or colour of coat, or fish with damaged fins, reptiles with missing tails etc.) then you are agreeing at the time of sale to buy the animal in that state.

Animals getting sick later is a bit trickier, for example most fish shops have a 48 hour period in which you can bring back dead fish, along with a sample of your water, this is because the death may have been an error on your part e.g. your tank may still be cycling and there may be toxic ammonia in the water. After that they consider it a problem at your end and will refuse to refund your money. Also since quarantining any new arrival is considered a sensible precaution on your part it is unlikely a store will pay for other animals that have become sick from contact with the new arrival. However if your newly purchased rabbit becomes ill within days of purchase and it is likely it was carrying the illness when you purchased it, then the shop is liable for a refund.

Fit for purpose means that it should do what it is described as, but this is equally difficult with animals, whilst most dogs will love to go for a run with you, there is always the chance that particular one doesn’t like the outdoors.

With both these cases there is the question of what is reasonable for the shop to know. Can you reasonably expect them to know that your turtle has a heart condition and is going to drop dead 5 years down the line? No. Is it reasonable for them to know the species of that same turtle and tell you what size it will reach when fully grown? Yes.

Match the Description Given

This is your legal back up both with business and private sellers, the animal must match the description given.

There are two aspects to the description, what was written, and what is said when you are there. So ask the right questions, the rules on omission are a little more vauge for private sellers and in general “Caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware) will apply, so they don’t have to tell you anything if you don’t ask.

So make sure you ask about the animal’s health, the parent’s health if relevant, their history, breed specifics and even species if you’re unsure. Have someone with you as a witness and don’t be afraid to ask for a vet check if you have your heart set on the animal. You will have to pay for this, but it can be well worth it in the long run, especially considering the cost of both the animal and the vet bills.

Example 3

You go to a seller’s house to purchase a parrot, the seller has described him as being hand reared friendly and healthy. When you arrive he’s already in a cage and hiding at the back. So as not to stress him out you hand over the money and take your new pet. When you get home you find he’s a biting scratching whirlwind that has clearly never been held in his life. You give him a day or two to settle down but nothing helps, do you have the right to ask for your money back?

If you have the experience to demonstrate the parrot was clearly not hand reared or friendly then yes. It’s best to make sure you have a copy of exactly what the seller advertised him as and ask the seller if you can have a refund. But you have to do this in a reasonable space of time so don’t leave it months before getting in touch.

Example 4

You see an advert for a yellow bellied slider turtle and go to have a look, whilst you’re there you notice that facial markings are different, you query this with the seller, who states that it is definitely a yellow bellied and will only grow to about 30cm maximum and so only need a 500 litre tank. When you get home you ask online and find your new pet is an Eastern River Cooter and can get to 45cm and will need a 750 litre tank. In this case the animal doesn’t match the description and you can ask for your money back.

If things go wrong keep good records, document everything with receipts, photos and video. If the animal needs to go to the vet take it to the vet or it could be a cruelty offence, and try and talk to the seller before taking legal action. 


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