In April 2021, a new animal law was passed by parliament, meaning that people who abuse animals will now face longer maximum prison sentences of up to five years. It was also announced in May 2021 that a government taskforce has been established to crackdown on pet theft, as part of an ‘Action Plan for Animal Welfare’ that was confirmed in the Queen’s speech.

NAWT is always supportive of moves to protect and improve animal welfare, and has a particular interest in the laws affecting domestic pets. It is encouraging to see how the legal situation has progressed over the years for our beloved pets, and that we seem to be heading in the right direction.

Following the announcements, we look back on how animal laws around domestic pets have changed over the past five decades. Part one will cover the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Then next month we will publish part two, covering the year 2000 to present day!

Pre 1970s:

The Dogs Act 1871 was the first major piece of legislation addressing dog law. Section 2 of this remains the only part still in force. It requires that the owner should be brought before a Magistrates’ court if local authorities receive a complaint that a dog is dangerous, regardless of whether in a private or public place, and are satisfied that the complaint is justified. The Magistrates have the power to make any order appropriate - which can include destruction, ordering the owner to have proper control, or imposing a fine.


The Animals Act 1971 made dog owners liable for any damage caused by their dog in certain circumstances - for example biting a person, or the dog causing a road traffic accident.

Animals may also be classed as property capable of being "damaged or destroyed" under the terms of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. A charge of criminal damage may be appropriate in the event of the death or injury of someone’s pet dog, cat, rabbit, or other species.

In 1973, The Breeding of Dogs Act was introduced. Under this legislation, anyone who kept a breeding establishment for dogs at any premises, and carried on at those premises a business of breeding dogs for sale, must have obtained a licence from the local council.

Back then, the council had the discretion whether to grant a licence and, before doing so, must have been satisfied that:

  • The dogs were provided with suitable accommodation, food, water and bedding
  • Were adequately exercised and visited at suitable intervals
  • All reasonable precautions were taken to prevent and control the spread of diseases amongst dogs


The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was passed in the year 1986, this law protected animals used for experimental or other scientific purposes. It was an underlying principle of the act that animals bred, supplied, and used for scientific procedures, were cared for in accordance with the best standards of modern animal husbandry.

This decade also saw the rise of animal welfare campaigning towards animal testing. For example, in 1989, The Body Shop was the first international beauty brand to campaign against the practice of animal testing in cosmetics.

Under The Road Traffic Act 1988, it is an offence to have a dog on a designated road without it being held on a lead. The Highway Code requires dogs travelling in vehicles to be kept secure, so as not to distract the driver. If a dog is injured in a road accident, the driver must stop and give their details to the person in charge of the dog. If there is no such person present, the incident must be reported to the police within 24 hours.


The Environmental Protection Act 1990 states that if large numbers of cats are kept at a domestic residence, then environmental health departments have powers to intervene in respect of nuisance or hazards – such as fouling, smell, and noise – caused as a result of too many cats being kept at that property.

The Breeding of Dogs Act was introduced in 1991. Anyone breeding five or more litters a year needed a license. In order to obtain a license, there must be suitable and clean accommodation, and the dogs must be exercised, fed, and given bedding.

During the same year, we saw the creation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. This made it an offence for any dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place.

Keep your eyes peeled on the NAWT website next month for part two! We will be looking at animal law from the year 2000 to present day.

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