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I've seen numerous sources, including the RSPCA, making claims along the lines that cats in the UK have a "right to roam", are "free spirits", and therefore that cat owners cannot be held liable for their cat's actions that cause damage. However, there appears to be no actual law that supports this. For instance, the Animals Act 1971 makes no mention of cats at all. As far as I can tell, the law is incredibly vague on this issue.

Why, then, is there apparently widespread belief that cats have a right to roam? Is there legal precedent establishing this? If a cat owner were found liable in a county court for their cat having committed damages during their roaming, would there be any legal basis to challenge this decision?

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    If not, three follow-up question arise: 1. Would it be considered trespassing when my cat visits my neighbours garden 2. Would cats need to be leashed and walked like dogs in urban areas? 3. If my cat defecates on some other privately owned property, is that considered an offense (Think about some dog owned by a stranger jumping over your fence and dumping its load on your lawn)?
    – iLuvLogix
    Mar 29, 2023 at 15:23
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    Usually, if something isn't explicitly prohibited then it's permitted
    – user35069
    Mar 29, 2023 at 15:27
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    While your libinsurance.co.uk link does include the phrases "right to roam" and "free spirits", your RSPCA link doesn't. It says "Cats are protected by law and are free to roam", which isn't the same as claiming that cats have a legal right to roam. Mar 30, 2023 at 10:15
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    I don't know about human law, but it's definitely true in cat law. Mar 30, 2023 at 18:38
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    I suspect that far from any 'right to roam' cats have no right at all in British law… The last time I looked was at least 40 years ago and what has changed since? Back then, a car driver running over and slightly injuring a dog did, but one even killing a cat did not have a duty to report the incident… Either way, how could the idea that a cat or any other animal might be either guilty of or somehow absolved from trespass not be ridiculous? Mar 30, 2023 at 21:32

2 Answers 2

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The statement that cats cannot commit trespass is technically true, but is also a misreading of ss.4 and 4A of the Animals Act. Those sections replace a common-law doctrine called "cattle trespass", which was a specific tort (a civil wrong) concerning what happens when my cattle stray onto your land. Both old and new rules apply only to livestock, so not just cows but other kinds of farm animals as well - but not to dogs or cats. Horses are a special case (s.4A). Since cats are not livestock, they cannot be the subject of cattle trespass and are not covered by section 4.

Further, since they are animals, they cannot commit the tort of trespass at all. Animals themselves are not liable at law. As the keeper of cows, it would be me who was liable in a case of cattle trespass, not the cow. The point of s.4, and its predecessor in common law, is to make me liable for damage done to your property by my cows, regardless of whether I was negligent in the way I looked after them (it is a "strict liability"). The mere fact that they've strayed onto your land and done damage is enough.

Because cats are not cows, this particular rule does not apply. That does not mean that cats can't be the subject of other torts. In particular, cats could be involved in the tort of nuisance, which covers all sorts of potential scenarios - noise, smells, etc. This has typically happened when there are lots and lots of cats. And under the Animals Act, the keeper of any animal may be liable for damage that it does, including physical injury or damage to property.

Section 2 of the Act establishes a statutory distinction between whether I am liable for the damage, or strictly liable. In a scenario where I am strictly liable, you do not have to prove that I was negligent in my management of the animal. Broadly, that applies if the animal belongs to a dangerous species, or is unusually dangerous in itself. (There has been very complex litigation on this point which I am not discussing here.) If my cat is not a real vicious bastard of a cat, but just a regular cat, then I can still be liable for damage that he does: it's just not automatic.

Following Rachael Mulheron's Principles of Tort Law (CUP, 2nd ed., 2016), for an action in negligence there are several key points -

Proving that D, the owner/keeper of an animal, owed C a duty of care, where C was injured by that animal, has been a straightforward task.

The court must be satisfied that a reasonable person in the position of D, the keeper of the animal, would foresee a real risk of injury to C arising from D's particular acts or omissions in dealing with the animal. Otherwise, in the absence of that foreseeability, a reasonable D would have done nothing different in response to the risk posed by his animal.

To fall below the standard of reasonable care as a keeper of an animal, D must have failed to do that which a reasonable keeper would have done (to supervise/fence/control, etc, the animal), or have done something which a reasonable keeper would not have done.

In damage-by-animals cases, C must prove that, as in the usual negligence action, D's failure to supervise/handle/care for the animals caused C's injury on the balance of probabilities.

As in other negligence cases, there are various defences; if you hassled my cat and it scratched you, then that's your fault and not mine.

From the material quoted above, we can see that for a normal cat in the UK, where the owner is not doing anything unusual by letting it roam freely outdoors (as is typical for UK cats), it is going to be hard to meet the tests. Things may be different if D knows that C is allergic to cats, or that the cat has been eyeing up C's delicious prize goldfish, or has a bone to pick with D's own cat and is likely to attack her, or something. Most of the big cases under the Animals Act have involved animals who are more likely to cause damage, such as dogs, horses and cows; a cat is only legally different because (1) unlike for dogs, horses and cows, there are no special rules applying to cats, and (2) factually, most cats don't do much harm.

To that point, even if D is liable in the way described, C may not get very much out of them by way of damages. Defecation in C's garden is not pleasant, but is probably not worth a lot of money either.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Mar 30, 2023 at 20:47
  • "Because cats are not cows" citation needed.
    – Aron
    Apr 1, 2023 at 19:16
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If a cat owner were found liable in a county court for their cat having committed damages during their roaming, would there be any legal basis to challenge this decision?

That begs the question of liability, doesn't it?

The bottom line is that cats are regarded both as fairly tame creatures which don't pose any general risk of unprovoked aggression or serious injury towards humans.

For this reason, they have not fallen under legal regimes designed to control dangerous animals (which are traditionally kept despite a danger because they have some kind of working role).

Instead cats are simply left to roam the environment in a natural manner. They have always performed a useful function mainly in controlling vermin.

Cats also do not generally pose a risk of causing serious "damage" to property, save where some arrangement is so fragile that any wild animal or adverse weather event might be prone to cause damage.

Because cats are relatively inert, there is no specific regime that holds owners liable for ordinary behaviours of cats.

However, unlike wild animals, domestic cats cannot be permanently captured or killed as they are regarded as the personal property of the owner (though the cats could well be seized temporarily or harassed if the purpose is to deter their future presence).

Ultimately, a landowner has no more right to be free of visitation from his neighbours' cats, as he has a right to be free from ordinary cooking smells, or the noise of children playing, or the runoff from a water source, or a variety of other things that are clearly imposed on him by the activity or arrangements of his neighbours, but which he has no right to control or hold his neighbour accountable for.

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    How about if the cat attacks the neighbour's cat, incurring vet costs?
    – Jez
    Mar 29, 2023 at 17:33
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    @Jez, the fight would be regarded as between the cats themselves, and a natural peril the same as if the cat is hit by a car. If the owner opts to incur vet costs to maintain the cat, then they can do so, but nobody else is liable for those costs.
    – Steve
    Mar 29, 2023 at 17:56
  • Serious damage to property isn't inconceivable: Cats do sometimes have a habit of knocking things over, perhaps deliberately or perhaps trying to scent-mark. If they did that with a source of ignition, they could do a lot of damage while behaving normally for the species. The owner might know to avoid candelabra but the neighbour wouldn't (and my neighbour's cat sometimes wanders into my house if I leave the back door or a low window open for fresh air). But it would take pretty bad luck
    – Chris H
    Mar 30, 2023 at 13:42
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    @ChrisH, the negligence would then be on the part of the person leaving these ignition sources lying around. A cat could step on a nuclear button, etc. Generally speaking, cats are anal retentive, and don't like to knock things over or attract attention, and they are most likely to do so only amongst unfamiliar objects.
    – Steve
    Mar 30, 2023 at 16:28
  • @Steve that would be an interesting problem in its own right - it's normal to leave the room with a candle on the table in your own home, and even if not an electric lamp can also start a fire if smashed, a heater knocked over amd many other causes of damage .
    – Chris H
    Mar 30, 2023 at 16:55

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