Baby gerbils

Did you know - owners must make sure their pets are happy by law?

British pet owners have a legal duty to make sure their pets are happy and healthy – but only 35 per cent of them have any idea that this law exists.

I’m already a pet owner, or thinking of getting a pet. What do I need to know?

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales) and Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 make a pet owner legally responsible for making sure any domesticated animal under their care has their welfare needs met.

A pet’s welfare needs will depend on their species; a cat has very different needs to a tortoise, for example.

What are the five welfare needs?

All domestic animals have the legal right to:

  • live in a suitable environment
  • eat a suitable diet
  • exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

Pet owners must make sure their pet’s welfare needs are met, otherwise they could be prosecuted.

You may also hear people referring to the five welfare needs as the ‘five freedoms’.

Is the law the same for keeping all pets?

Dog and owner
A dog's welfare needs are different to a hamster's welfare needs, but both animals must have their specific needs met under the law

Every domesticated animal who is owned by someone on a temporary or permanent basis has the right to be properly cared for by their owner.

All owners must make sure their pets’ welfare needs are met, but these will be different for different pets because different species have different needs.

A horse, for example, may be quite happy living outside all year round if they have access to good shelter. But snakes, however, would not be able to cope with living outdoors in the British climate as they are unable to regulate their own body temperature so need to live in a vivarium with a suitable gradient heat source.

Horses and snakes are different so their specific welfare needs are different, but their owners must make sure they both live in environments that are suitable for them.

What is the punishment for breaking animal welfare law?

Pet owners who fail to ensure their pet’s welfare needs are met face prosecution – but importantly, they run the risk of causing suffering to an animal who they have taken into their home and have a responsibility to care for. Failing to meet a pet’s welfare needs could cause them to become sick, hurt, upset or stressed.

Owners can be taken to court if they don’t look after their pets properly and face a prison sentence of up to six months, and a fine of up to £20,000. They may also have their pet taken away from them, or be banned from having pets in the future.

How can I make sure I am not causing my pet unnecessary suffering?

The vast majority of pet owners love their pets very much and wouldn’t dream of doing anything that might cause their pet harm.

Use the five freedoms as a guide. Are you making sure your pet:

  • has a comfy environment to live in that is suitable for their species?
  • gets enough of the right food for their species?
  • has enough space and opportunities to move around as much as they need to?
  • lives with or away from other pets of their own species if they need to?
  • is unlikely to hurt themselves, get sick or suffer?

If the answer to each the above questions is ‘yes’, you have nothing to worry about. Enjoy having a wonderful bond with your beloved pet!

If you’re worried, read all about how you can make sure your pet is living a happy and healthy life on our pet advice pages. Remember, if you rehomed your pet from Blue Cross you can call our team at any time for tips and advice. And don’t forget to chat to your vet if you have any queries – they will be happy to help.

— Page last updated 26/05/2023