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Cats And The Law

If you already own a cat or are considering getting one for the first time, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of what the law is with respect to keeping cats.  Even if you are already a dog owner, you may not know about the law with respect to cats.  In the UK, cats and dogs are treated slightly differently under the law.  Both are considered as the 'property' of their owner, but whereas dog owners have a legal responsibility to keep their dogs under control and are responsible for any damage they cause, cats are considered to have a 'right to roam'.   But there is more to it than this.  So let's take a look at what the laws are when it comes to cats.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006

Much of the law in relation to animals has now been consolidated in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 which applies in England and Wales, the Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.  This law states that all animals kept as pets in the UK must have provision made for a suitable living environment, including the freedom to exhibit normal and natural behaviour patterns, a suitable diet, and protection from pain, suffering, wilful neglect and preventable disease. It also covers the penalties for wilful neglect or causing deliberate harm to an animal.  These can include a prison sentence, fines of up to £20,000, and being banned from keeping animals. The act also states that it is illegal to sell an animal of any type to a person of less than 16 years of age.  All of these provisions apply equally to dogs, cats, and any other pet animals.

Theft Act 1968 and Criminal Damage Act 1971

Under the Theft Act, cats are regarded as the ‘property’ of their owner. The theft of a cat is treated as an offence under the Theft Act, in the same way as theft of any other property.  A cat that is lost or has strayed is generally regarded as the property of the original owner. It is therefore necessary to make all reasonable endeavours to locate the original owner whenever possible.  This means that, strictly speaking, you cannot just keep a stray cat that wanders into your garden; you should make some effort to find the owner.

The Criminal Damage Act  means that, because the law regards cats as property, an offence may be committed under this act if a person, without lawful excuse, kills or injures a cat belonging to another person.


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The Common Law Duty of Care

This is the main area where cats are treated differently from dogs and other animals.  Unlike dogs, which have to be kept under control by their owners, cats legally have a ‘right to roam’

wherever they wish.  Some of the duties imposed upon the owners of dogs and livestock to keep their animals under control – the Road Traffic and Dangerous Dogs Acts – do not apply to cat owners.   This is basically because the law recognises that, by their nature, cats are less likely to cause injury to people or damage to property than are some other animals. It would also be extremely difficult for cat owners to monitor their cat's movements, particularly for those cats which are allowed outside, and until comparatively recently, that applied to almost all cats in the UK.

However, things are not quite that clear cut  Cat owners do have a general duty to take reasonable care to ensure that their cats do not cause injury to people or damage to property.  So, legally, you cannot simply allow your cat to damage your neighbours' garden and terrorise their children!  But in practice, cases involving damage to property or injury to people by cats are few and far between.  Whereas dogs have been known to bite people and do considerable damage, this very rarely happens in the case of cats.

What to do if You Suspect Cruelty and Neglect of Cats

As stated above, there are laws against the cruelty and neglect of all animals, and this of course includes cats.  If you suspect that any cats is being treated cruelly, or not receiving the welfare needs listed above, you should contact the RSPCA if you are in England and Wales.  You can call the RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty line on  0300 1234 999. You will be asked for a detailed description of what you have seen or heard, so make sure you have something definite to report if at all possible, rather than just vague suspicions, which would be very hard for the RSPCA to act upon.  . The RSPCA can request help from the local authorities or the police when necessary.

In Scotland, you should contact the Scottish Society for the Prevention of  Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) on 03000 999 999, and in Northern Ireland, contact the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) on 028 3025 1000.

Planning and Environmental Law

If large numbers of cats are kept at a domestic residence, the Local Planning Authority may decide that the number is beyond that of a normal household, and could require you to make an application for Change of Use.  If this is not granted, you could be required to reduce the number of cats at the property. 

Environmental Health Departments also have powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in respect of nuisance or hazards – such as fouling, smell and noise – caused as a result of too many cats being kept at a single property. If the welfare needs of cats kept in large numbers at a single property are not being met, this may constitute a breach of the duty to ensure welfare under the Animal Welfare Act and may constitute an offence under that act.

Pet Travel Schemes

Until quite recently, all cats and other animals entering the UK had to be kept in quarantine for six months.  However, the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) now allows cats and other animals to travel and enter the UK without the need for quarantine, provided that certain requirements are fulfilled.

The above are the main laws relating to cats, although they may not cover absolutely everything.  As a responsible cat owner, it is well worth knowing basically what they are and how they might affect you and your cats.


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