Animal Welfare Obligations

OBLIGATIONS AND LEGAL RESPONSIBILITIES  Applicable to Rescues and Rehoming organisations

There is currently no specific regulation of dog rescues, rehoming organisations or sanctuaries.

In lieu of a specific regulatory framework rescues are subject to an (often confusing) array of legal provisions.

There is also no settled or accepted definition of what it means to rescue, rehabilitate or re-home dogs. ‘Rescue’ encompasses such a wide range of activities, from those coordinating home-from-home rehoming, to those operating multi-site rescue centres. Scotland is the only UK jurisdiction to licence rescues/sanctuaries and organisations who engage in rehoming activities.

This guide is therefore intended to help navigate the legal duties on individuals or organisations who hold themselves out to the public to receive vulnerable dogs on a regular basis, with a view to rehabilitating and either rehoming, or providing long-term care. It provides an outline of legal duties applicable to rescue and rehoming organisations operating in Northern Ireland. Rescues based in Northern Ireland but operating outside of this jurisdiction may need to pay attention to regulation in the other jurisdictions in which they operate.

Animal Welfare

Animal cruelty – causing /unnecessary suffering

Under animal welfare legislation a person commits a criminal offence if their action(s), or failure(s) to act, cause an animal unnecessary suffering, whether physical or mental.

There are also specific offences created by the Animal Welfare Act i.e. poisoning an animal (s. 8) or abandoning an animal (s.14)

In addition to the prohibition on suffering, anyone who is temporarily responsible for a dog is required to meet the needs of that animal.

 For dog rescues this includes ensuring that all dogs in your care have:

·               a suitable environment;

·               a suitable diet;

·               be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns;

·               be housed with, or apart from, other animals; and

·               the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.


Inspectors appointed by the local government district (formerly district councils) are responsible for enforcing the law and have the power to issue improvement notices which detail how an owner/keeper is failing to meet the need of their animals and what steps need to be taken to comply with the law within a specified period. Failure to comply with an improvement notice is an offence.

If an inspector or a police constable reasonably believes that an animal is suffering, they may take any measures they believe to be immediately necessary to alleviate the animal’s suffering. If a veterinary surgeon certifies that an animal is suffering or is likely to suffer unless circumstances change the animal may be removed. An animal may only be euthanised if a veterinary surgeon has certified that it is in the best interests of the animal to be euthanised, unless the animal’s condition is such that there is no reasonable alternative to destroying it, and it is not reasonably practicable to wait for a veterinary surgeon.

An inspector or a constable may enter premises, other than a private house, for the purpose of searching for an animal they reasonably believe to be suffering or likely to suffer if the circumstances of the animal do not change. An inspector or constable may also apply to a lay magistrate for a warrant to enter any premises, if necessary, using reasonable force, to search for evidence that a welfare offence has been committed.

What can happen if I break the law?

Anyone who is temporarily in charge of a dog is responsible for meeting their welfare needs.  Rescue or rehoming organisations which fail to ensure the welfare needs of dogs in their care are met could face prosecution for animal cruelty. Liability can attach to a director, manager or any staff member or volunteer who is shown to have been responsible for the care of the dog at the relevant time. Rescues which fail to meet dogs’ minimum welfare needs can face a prison sentence (of up to 5 years), and a fine of up to £20,000. Individuals found liable for these offences may also have animals removed from their care and/or be banned from caring for or keeping animals in the future.

As an alternative to prosecution, you may be issued with an improvement notice detailing the steps you must take to improve the conditions in which a dog is kept.

What exactly constitutes suffering is not defined and a person or organisation who causes an animal to suffer may be able to justify their actions by showing that they acted for a legitimate purpose, such as benefiting the animal; or to protect a person, property or another animal.

Who do I contact if I suspect animal cruelty?

Local government districts (LGD) are responsible for the welfare of domestic animals including dogs. Suspicions of cruelty should therefore be reported to your LGD (details are included below).

The only exceptions to this are where cruelty is linked to other criminal activity – e.g. dog fighting, badger baiting with dogs, dog/puppy trafficking. These activities should be reported to PSNI.

Belfast City Council

Telephone: 028 9027 0431 Email:

Eastern Region

Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council, and Ards & North Down Borough Council.

Telephone: 028 9244 7861 Email:

Northern Region

Mid & East Antrim Borough Council, Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council,

and Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council.

Telephone: 028 2563 3134 Email:

Southern Region

Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council,

and Newry Mourne & Down District Council.

Telephone: 028 3751 5800 Email:

Western Region

Fermanagh & Omagh District Council, Derry City & Strabane District Council,

and Mid Ulster District Council.

Telephone: 028 8225 6226 Email:


Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011

 Sentencing Guidelines – Magistrates’ Court – Animal Offences | Judiciary NI

Best practice:

While not required by law, it is recommended that animal welfare establishments have policies on the following welfare issues:

–              Intake/admissions

–              Euthanasia

–              Neutering