Liability for Animals

People who keep animals whether they are dangerous or non-dangerous animals are under a duty of care to prevent harm to other people by their animals.

This is a civil liability and is governed by the law of tort meaning that it is concerned with a dispute between two parties, in this case between two individuals and is therefore governed by a civil court.


If the keeper of a certain animal is negligent in the looking after or restraining of that animal and this then causes damage to another person or their property then the keeper will be liable to that other person through the tort of negligence.

As is the case with all negligence claims the following elements will need to be present:

  • Duty of Care
  • Breach of the Duty
  • Causation
  • Damage or Injury

Using the common law tort of negligence it is possible to establish a breach when concerned with the keeper of an animal. There is however specific legislation set down concerning liability for animals which is the preferable route to establish a claim.

Animals Act 1971

The Animals Act 1971 provides a distinction between dangerous and non dangerous species.

Dangerous Species

Section 2(1) of the Animals Act 1971 states that where damage is caused by an animal which belongs to a dangerous species, any person who is a keeper of the animal is liable for the damage expect as specifically provided for by the Act.

Strict Liability

Under Section 2(1) of the Animals Act 1971 the keeper of the dangerous animal is strictly liable for any harm which may have been caused by that animal regardless of whether the keeper or owner was at fault.

Dangerous Species

A dangerous species is one which:

  • Is not commonly domesticated in the British Isles and
  • Which, when fully grown, unless restrained, is either likely to cause severe damage or is such that any damage which it does cause is likely to be severe.

Keeper of the animal

The keeper of the animal is defined by the Act as the following:

  • The owner is in possession
  • The head of the household if the owner is under 16 years old
  • An existing keeper who loses ownership or possession, until there is a new keeper.

A common misconception when dealing with the strict liability under the Animals Act 1971 is that the damage caused has to be that which is usually associated with that animal for example biting or gorging. This is not the case an applies to any damage caused which could be anything from an animal being transported by a trailer might suddenly move causing the trailer to move and cause damage to a third party on the road.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 requires keepers of dangerous wild animals to take out compulsory insurance policies against liability for damage caused to third parties and to be licensed by the local authority.

Non-Dangerous Species

Under Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971 states that where damage is caused by an animal that belongs to a non-dangerous species a keeper of the animal is liable for the damage. Animals within this category as such things as dogs, cattle, horses etc.

In order to prove liability under Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971 the following needs to be established:

  • That the damage is of a kind which the particular animal, unless restrained, either is likely to cause or if caused is likely to be severe
  • Such likelihood is due to the characteristics of the particular animal not normally found in animals of the same species or not so except at certain times or in certain circumstances
  • That those characteristics were known to the keeper as defined above.

Animals Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill

The Animals Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill seeks to alter the wording of Section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971 in order to clarify the circumstances where liability will apply when concerned with non-dangerous species. The bill states that owners of non-dangerous species will be strictly liable for damage or harm caused by that animal when they know that the animal in question may be dangerous at the time that the damage has been caused either due to its particular temperament or due to the particular circumstances applying at the time such as when the animal may be protecting its young.

The liability will thus be restricted in cases of non-dangerous animals if the bill receives royal assent and becomes a full piece of legislation.


The following defences are available when concerned with liability in relation to both dangerous and non-dangerous species:

  • Contributory Negligence
  • Volenti
  • Trespassers

Contributory Negligence

Where the damage caused is due wholly to the fault of the person suffering it is said to be a defence under Section 5 of the Animals Act 1971.


Voluntary assumption of the risk is a defence under Section 5 of the Animals Act 1971 but not if this risk is ordinarily incidental to that persons employment. An example of this would be someone working as a lion tamers assistant.


Under Section 5 of the Animals Act 1971 there will be no liability where the keeper can prove that the animal was not deliberately kept to protect persons or property from trespassers of if it was that this protection was not unreasonable.