An overview of Animal Welfare Acts within the UK

By choosing to have animals in our care, we have a moral and legal duty of care to ensure their welfare is met. This duty is governed by relevant legislation, dependent on which country we reside in. The UK has three Animal Welfare Acts: one for England and Wales, one for Scotland, and one for Northern Ireland.

Animal welfare issues are devolved within the UK, so the current legislation to protect domestic animals, or captive wild animals under the care of man, falls under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales), the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 2011.

These Acts put the responsibility of the animals’ welfare solely onto the owner or care giver, and requires that they must take reasonable steps to meet the animals’ basic welfare needs and prevent unnecessary suffering. Failure to do so is an offence, and is prosecutable.

Welfare needs and Codes of Practice

The basic welfare needs of animals under the Animal Welfare Acts are similar to the requirements of the Five Freedoms, and they are as follows:

  • The need for a suitable environment
  • The need for a suitable diet
  • The need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • The need to be housed with or apart from other animals (as appropriate)
  • The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

It is the pet owners' responsibility to ensure these needs are being met and to help with this there are associated Codes of Practices which provide care guidelines for cats, dogs, rabbits, equines and non-human primates. These Codes highlight and explain the relevant legal requirements to keep these animals, promote and give examples of good practice, and provide advice on how to best look after your animal. The Codes themselves are not legally binding; however, they can be used to help with prosecutions if welfare needs are not met.

Offences and Prosecutions

A failure to provide adequate care for an animal or causing unnecessary suffering is a breach of the law and can result in a lifetime ban of owning pets, fines up to £20,000 and even prison sentences. However, lack of a licencing or regulatory system means enforcement of these Acts is often difficult.