The Animal Welfare Act 2006 and Sentencing Council Guidelines currently limit custodial sentences to six months’ imprisonment. However, the Government is now proposing to raise this to five years in response to calls to correct the issue of proportionality and to bring the law in England and Wales into line with other countries’ policies on animal cruelty. The draft legislation will be published next year.

Offences covered by the Act

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 creates the following criminal offences: causing animals unnecessary suffering (whether intentionally or not), improperly docking dogs’ tails, causing unnecessary mutilation, administering unauthorised poisons or drugs, participating in the organisation or facilitation of animal fights and failing one’s duty of care to particular animals.

Current sentencing practice and statistics

The Act allows for a range of penalties, from absolute discharges to custodial sentences. In 2015, 933 people were convicted of offences under the Animal Welfare Act.

A breakdown of that total reveals the distribution of penalties:

PenaltyNumber of people
Immediate custodial sentence91
Suspended sentence202
Community sentence341
Conditional discharge100
Absolute discharge3

The RSPCA investigated the custodial element of that breakdown further and found that only three defendants received the maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment.

Why some say that increase is necessary

The view of the Government and various animal rights organisations is that there is a disconnect between the level of punishments and the seriousness of the crime of animal cruelty. Recent cases that have prompted this change include a man who purchased a number of puppies for the sole purpose of killing them by beating, choking and stabbing.

The reforms have also been influenced by the disparity between penalties for animal cruelty here, compared with those in other jurisdictions such as Germany (5 years) and Northern Ireland (3 years). This argument is further strengthened by looking at the maximum sentences attached to other, arguably lesser, crimes. Fly tipping, for example, carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment.

Given the complexity of animal welfare legislation and the significant changes proposed in sentencing practice, it is important to instruct an expert if you find yourself under investigation or facing prosecution. For assistance on any aspect of animal welfare law, contact a member of our criminal defence team by email on