2003-2014, Sarah Hartwell

This is a very brief overview of cats and the law between 1822 and the 1970s in Britain and is intended as background information for the "Retrospective" series of articles. Developments since the late 1970s have not been included and readers with a serious interest in the current state of the law in Britain or in their own countries should contact their region's SPCA or equivalent animal protection organisation. Acts are mentioned in brief in roughly chronological order (based on initial introduction of the Act) with a separate section on the tricky issue of "Cats and Trespass".

While cats were legally domestic animals, the term "vermin" could be applied by gamekeepers to poaching cats. "Vermin" was not legally defined, generally meant a noxious, mischievous, destructive or disgusting animal, especially one of small size, common occurrence and difficult to control. Gamekeepers had an extensive list of vermin which they would shoot, including "poaching cats" and many species which later became legally protected (but which they shot and poisoned nevertheless).

Regardless of some people's definition of them as vermin, cats were legally classed as Domestic Animals and were Protected by Law. "It may be argued that all cats are potential poachers, for that matter all humans are potential law breakers but they are good citizens until proved otherwise." The cat was covered by many Acts of Parliament dating back to 1822, passed with the object of protecting animals, are all aimed at the elimination of "unnecessary abuse of an animal". Conviction for various offences against animals led to a fine, imprisonment or both, depending on the nature of the offence and the legislation under which it fell. The Court could confiscate the defendant's animals and ban the defendant from keeping all animals, or certain types of animal. The ban be for such a period as the Court thought fit. Breach of such a ban was a further criminal offence.

In "Cat Care" and "Some Facts About Cats" in the 1960s, the CPL reported that the maximum fine for cruelty to animals was rarely imposed, but it was noted that "Stipendiary Magistrate of the Potteries fined a man £25 for "Cruelty to a cat by unreasonably killing it in an improper manner", £4 and 12 shillings special costs were also imposed (£1 = 20 shillings). The same man was summoned for causing unnecessary suffering to another cat "by unreasonably omitting to provide it with sufficient nourishing food and ‘proper care and attention." For this he was fined £5 with £4 and 12 shillings special costs. His cruelty cost him altogether £39 and 4 shillings, a very fitting penalty and one which should prove a deterrent to other cat haters; the man admitted that he disliked cats. The two poor animals who suffered from his neglect and brutality had been befriended by his wife while he was absent."

While dogs were required to be registered and licensed, cats were not (these days, neither are registered, except on a voluntary basis as part of an identity scheme). This meant that a motorist who accidentally ran over a cat did not have to report the incident, nor was he likely to be caught in the act if he deliberately discarded a cat far from home. The Cats Protection League and other animal organisations considered the omission of cats from the Road Traffic Act "regrettable" since callous motorists sometimes deliberately ran down cats, while they were obliged to report accidents involving dogs.

Cats were protected or affected by a large number of other Acts. In chronological order, the main ones were:

Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876.
Veterinary Surgeons Act, 1881, 1948.
Protection of Animals Act, 1911, 1934.
Larceny Act, 1861, 1916.
Protection of Animals 1911 (Amendment) Act, 1921.
The Animals (Anaesthetics) Act, 1919
Diseases of Animals Act, 1950.

Pet Animals Act, 1951.
Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act, 1954.
Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Act, 1954.
Abandonment of Animals Act, 1960.
Animal Boarding Establishments Act, 1963.
Animals (Cruel Poisons) Act, 1962.
Animals Act, 1971


Under The Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, anyone who conducted painful experiments on living animals, without the use of anaesthetics, committed an offence. Licences issued by The Home Secretary were required before any such experiment could be carried out. Penalties included fines and/or imprisonment. Unfortunately, there was a recognised exception: where the object of the experiment would be frustrated if anaesthetics were administered, then the experiment may be carried out without. In 1972, around 14,000 cats were used in laboratory experiments in the UK. In 1978 almost 1000 experiments without pain relief were performed legally on cats. It was a further offence under the 1876 Act to conduct such experiments in public, with or without charging for admission. It was an offence to advertise such an exhibition. Search warrants can be obtained if individuals were suspected of such offences, but licensed persons could not be prosecuted without the assent of the Secretary of State.

There were no restrictions respecting cats under the Foot and Mouth Disease (Infected Areas Restrictions Order, 1925), and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries did not require the slaughter of cats in the event of their being on, or near to, premises which are within an infected Area.

An example of a case agfainst a person for cruelty to a cat was reported in The Daily News of 28th June 1900 (Page 8): A WARNING AGAINST STONING CATS: James Galletly, a dyer and cleaner, of 144 Shipland-road. Paddington, was summoned at Marylebone Police-court yesterday by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for cruelty to a cat. Mrs. Mackenzie said the defendant was also the landlord of No 142 and she was one of his tenants. She possessed a small pet dog and a very fine Persian cat, which was as harmless as a lamb. Last Friday week the landlord objected to her keeping the animals, and threatened that if she did not get rid of them she would have to clear out. Subsequently she heard sounds of “bang bang,” and on going to the rear of the house she saw the defendant in his garden throw a stone at the cat , which was in the complainant’s garden. The cat’s side was cut open and it fell bleeding. A chemist applied a lotion, and the matter was reported to the police. A constable spoke to the defendant who admitted having thrown a bone and a brick at the cat. Mr Robert Anderson, veterinary surgeon, said the cat had sustained a fracture of the shoulder bone. The wound had healed up, but the bone still moved about. Great violence must have been used, for the cat was, he believed, permanently injured. The defendant admitted throwing at the cat when it was fighting, to frighten it, but did not hit it. Mr de Rutzon fined the defendant 40 shillings and ordered him to pay 23 shillings costs.

Under the Rabies Order of 1919, the Anthrax Order of 1928, and the Animal (Notification of Disease) Act of 1919, cats were subject to control and/or destruction in infected areas. Under the Importation of Dogs and Cats Order of 1928, cats imported from abroad were subject to detention, at the owner’s expense in a place of quarantine approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (see later section on rabies)

Historically, cats were not protected against theft, but by the 1960s, cat owners whose cats were stolen were protected by The Larceny Acts of 1861 and 1916 and by The Theft Act of 1968. The Larceny Acts meant that theft of a domestic animal could result in a fine or imprisonment. In 1955, three men appeared at Clerkenwell Court and were fined a total of £65 on charges related to stolen cats. Later on, The Theft Act 1968 acknowledged that all domestic animals, including cats and dogs, are capable of being stolen if taken from their owners unlawfully.

"Ill Treatment" under the Protection of Animals Act 1911 and later legislation up to the 1970s, defined that any person commits an offence who "cruelly ill-treats, beats, kicks, infuriates, terrifies; carries, or conveys in a manner to cause unnecessary suffering". Also anyone who commits any act that will cause unnecessary suffering or who causes anyone to do any of these things; or an owner who allowed someone else to do these things to his cat. It also applied to anyone who, through cruelty caused any damage or injury to someone's cat (this included compensation payable to the owner).

"Negligence" covered any person who omitted to do something and whose animal suffered as a result and also any one who failed to protect his own cat from cruelty. "Cruelty" meant deliberate acts which caused damage or injury to the cat. In 1972 there were 94 convictions brought under The Protection of Animals Act, 1911, including the "terrifying" of a cat by placing it in a spin-dryer, the causing of "unnecessary suffering" by starvation and the neglect of wounds inflicted in an accident, and cruel ill-treatment by the drowning of a cat on the end of a length of string.

If cruelty could not be proven, cat owners might claim for damage to their property. The case of Nye-v-Niblett 1918 brought cats within the legal definition of property which may be protected from being "damaged" or "destroyed". Thus, a person who, without lawful excuse, destroys or damages a cat belonging to another, intending to do so, or by being reckless, commits an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. A threat to damage or destroy a cat belonging to a third party, is also an offence, if the threat is made without lawful excuse.

"Poison" covered any person who deliberately and intentionally administered any poison, injurious drug or substance to any animal, or causes this to be done by another; or who knowingly put down any poison (or caused someone else to do this for him) for vermin in or on any land or building without taking reasonable precautions to prevent harm to cats and kittens in the area.

"Operations" applied to anyone who performed any operation on a cat without due care and humanity or who causes anyone to do this for him. It applied to any cat-owner who allowed his cat to be operated upon in this manner. This part of the law specifically outlawed the castration of male cats without anaesthetic, by making it an offence to perform the operation of castration upon any male kitten without any anaesthetic; or who causes anyone to do this for him; or any cat-owner who allowed this to be done to his cat.

Under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960, any owner (or other person in control of an animal) who abandoned it such that the animal suffered, was guilty of cruelty and liable to a fine and/or imprisonment. A person could be charged if they abandoned, or caused or allowed the abandonment of, a cat or kitten without reasonable cause or excuse under such circumstances as to be likely to cause unnecessary suffering.

Felines had long suffered from being left uncared for at holiday times or abandoned when the owners moved. Since the act's introduction there had been many successful prosecutions every year for the offence of abandonment (including temporary abandonment at holiday time). Owners would try to make out that the cat was not theirs but a stray. Ownership was generally impossible to prove when new-born kittens were abandoned; this being a common abuse which could bring conviction for cruelty even before the 1960 Abandonment of Animals Act.

A cat owner who failed to exercise reasonable care and supervision in respect of the protection of his cat from cruelty, was also guilty of cruelty.

The Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963 delegated to Local Authorities the control and licensing of all animal boarding establishments within their area. Licences were renewable annually on payment of a fee and the onus for regular inspection was placed on the Local Environmental Health Officer. Complaints about the conduct of such establishments went to the Local Authority concerned. The Local Authority could refuse or withdraw a licence; in such cases, appeal may be made to the Magistrates Court. A conviction of cruelty resulted in the cancelling of a licence and the disqualification of a proprietor from keeping animals. Some catteries met the so-called standards, but were still appalling.

The Pet Animal Act 1951 required the licensing of Pet Shops by Local Authorities. Unsatisfactory premises, overcrowding and low standards of hygiene could result in the loss of a licence. A requirement of licensing was that kittens should not be sold at too early an age nor to children under the age of 12. The act also covered hygiene to prevent spread of disease and also that kittens should not be sold unweaned or too young to leave their mothers (the latter had been a common abuse). It was also an offence to sell cats and kittens in a street or public place, except at a stall or barrow in a market. In recent times there is a problem of pets being sold at car boot fairs and this seems poorly regulated. Some local authorities carry out only cursory inspections of pet shops.

To reduce the possibility of Rabies spreading from the Continent to the UK, the Rabies (Importation of Dogs, Cats and Other Mammals) Order 1974 was issued. This controlled the import of dogs, cats and other species and required import licenses to be obtained from either the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland . Animals could only legally enter Britain through certain seaports or airports and had to be moved from the point of entry as soon as possible to a quarantine kennel licensed officially by the Ministry. The quarantine period was 6 months and the expense of keeping the animal fell entirely on the owner. An animal is brought into the country illegally might destroyed or impounded; the owner would be prosecuted, resulting in a heavy fine and/or up to 12 months' imprisonment. Should an outbreak of rabies actually occur, the Minister could issue an order restricting the movement of animals, including cats, into or out of a specific area. He could order the compulsory vaccination of animals against the disease and empower Veterinary Inspectors to take and destroy uncontrolled animals.


The question of trespass by cats frequently arose and was often a matter for dispute between neighbours.

It had been the common belief that the cat could not be classified under the same jurisdiction as other pets which are judged to be trespassing when they enter land or premises where they have no authority to be; prosecution cases have been cited to uphold this view. An opposing view was taken by a judge dealing with a case, brought under the 1936 Public Health Act, against the owner of a cat which, it was said, had trespassed and caused damage. Judgement was given against the owner of the cat with costs.

Under the Public Health Act 1936, there had been provision for prosecutions to be brought when, in the view of the Local Authority, there was a "statutory nuisance" caused by "any animal kept in such a place or manner as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance". It was very unlikely that occasional straying by a cat could be described as being a nuisance, but repeated straying, or straying by several cats, had sometimes resulted in convictions. The local authority could also draw up by-laws preventing the keeping of animals where it would be prejudicial to health.

The situation regarding trespass was clarified in 1971 and cats once more became "free spirits" under the law. Cats were excluded from the definitions of "livestock" and of "cattle" under the Animals Act 1971, "they cannot be held guilty of trespass under civil law and, therefore, their owners or keepers cannot be liable for any damage done".

The Animals Act, 1971 had caused anxiety among cat owners. It concerned liability for damage caused by domestic animals straying on the highway - showing that the motorcar was well and truly a fact of modern life. To bring a case, a party had to prove that the owner had negligently allowed their pet to stray and this probably could not be proved in the case of cats - it was (and still is) accepted that cats are wanderers by nature. Aviary owners knew that it was up to them to secure their birds from marauding cats. Gardeners had (and still have) no redress when a cat dug up their plants. These people could be convicted of cruelty if in their rage they injured or killed their neighbour’s cat.

In very recent times a man was convicted for killing scores of neighbours' cats with cyanide-laced fish after the cats entered his garden. In 2003, a man was convicted of electrocuting his neighbour's 10 month old cat using a home made electric fence over his flower beds (in this case, the cat's owner, a young girl, found her pet with its mouth still smoking where it had been caught under the electric wire and tried to bit its way out). A former colleague of mine, knowing that nothing could be proved against him, even boasted of kidnapping neighbours' cats and abandoning them miles from home after they annoyed his birds. Unfortunately, the penalties are rarely severe enough to act as a deterrent and many people are seeking to make cat-owners more responsible for their cats' trespass.

From "Daily Mail" 8th October, 1946: It was held by Judge Crosthwaite at Liverpool County Court that the cat has a right to prowl. J. E. Withers tenant of a ground floor flat in St. George’s Road, Hightown, Liverpool, sought an injunction against her tenant of the flat above, to keep the cat under control and claimed damages. For Mrs. C.’s cat, it was said, got into Mrs. W. ‘s, fiat ate mincepies and fish, got on to a bed, and scratched the bedpost. For the plaintiff it was contended that a cat was in the same category as a dog, and it was the owner’s duty to keep it under control. For Mrs. C. it was argued that an owner was not liable for a cat’s actions "when trespassing and following its natural propensities." Judgement was given for Mrs. C. with costs.

From "The Smallholder": A Trespassing Cat. The injury to the poultry has been caused by the intrusion of a neighbour’s cat, Mrs. G. C. M. (2441 Warwick). For such any injury and however caused, the owner of the cat is not liable. There is no provision requiring that the owner of the cat should take steps to prevent the recurrence of this happening. A cat is an animal which has a propensity to roam and to do damage of this kind. The owner of the poultry is obliged to keep his poultry so that cats cannot have access to them. The owner of the cat need do nothing in the matter and he may ignore any claims made for any loss caused by his cat or cats.

Those who were interested in the Law regarding Animals generally were directed to the "Symposium on Animals and the Law" (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare) and "Animal Law" by Godrey Sandys-Winsch BA (published by Shaw and Sons) and a later publication, "Animals and the Law" by T. G. Field-Fisher, M.A. (ublished by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare). And, of course, to their solicitor.


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