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Animal Laws Can Bite Back
By: Carrie Gustavson, Information Specialist
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine

Lawyers and courts are not usually the first things that come to mind when you think of your four-legged friends, but pets can be the subject of court cases. Dog and cat bites are one area where owners could find themselves in legal hot water. The CDC reports that dog bites occur in nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population, and most of those cases involved children. That's where animal laws come in.

"The statutes of the Illinois Animal Control Act are an incentive for people to keep animals under control and thereby prevent problems," says Dr. Don Uchtmann, professor of agricultural law who teaches veterinary jurisprudence at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

Besides requiring that dog owners keep their pets confined or on a leash in order to prevent bites, the laws assign liability when bites do occur. Often, the pet owner will be held strictly liable for any injury or damage a pet inflicts upon another person, whether or not the owner is to "blame." That's why pet owners might want to make sure their homeowner's insurance covers injury due to dog or cat bites.

"If a dog or any animal bites a human, the Animal Control Act says that anyone who has a knowledge of that bite must notify Animal Control. That includes a veterinarian, witness, or animal owner," says Dr. Uchtmann. The dog will have to be confined by a licensed vet for 10 days to observe for signs of rabies.

"The law is designed to prevent the spread of rabies," says Dr. Uchtmann. At the discretion of the animal control veterinarian, a dog with current vaccinations may be allowed to be confined in the house of the owner for rabies observation. If an animal shows signs of rabies during the observation period, it has to be euthanized and tested for rabies, and the person bit may have to receive costly rabies treatment.

Common sense can go a long way in preventing dog bites, so always obey leash laws, and rabies license laws. Make sure your dog sports identification tags to aid his homecoming should he become lost. Most dog bites come from male, unneutered dogs who tend to be more territorial and aggressive -- so spay and neuter your pets. If your dog ever snarls or snaps at a person, seek the help of your veterinarian or trainer to nip any signs of aggression in the bud. Don't allow children to walk the dog until they are physically strong enough and emotionally mature enough to understand a dog's behavior. Never leave children alone with a dog.

Children are the No.1 target of dog bites, so teaching them how to act around animals is a key to prevention. Many local humane societies can provide information that is useful for teaching children about pet safety. Here are some tips for kids:

  • Never look into a dog's eyes.
  • Don't tease dogs behind fences or chained up in a yard.
  • Don't go near a dog running loose, and tell an adult if you see a loose dog.
  • Don't run away from a dog; stand very still and quiet if a strange dog comes near.
  • Don't bother a dog while it is eating or sleeping.
  • Only pet a dog after you ask the owner if it is okay; then let the dog sniff a hand first before petting it.
Dogs and cats add happiness to our lives. But while most people consider dogs and cats part of their family, the law often sees them as property. It gets complicated if your animal bites somebody, so follow the local laws and ordinances, know your responsibilities as a pet owner, and encourage others to do the same. To find out more about local laws and how to prevent dog bites, contact your local Animal Control veterinarian or humane society.

Reprinted with permission from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine