Legal Duty of Cat Owner To Provide A Suitable Environment

In the UK, a cat owner has a legal duty to provide a suitable environment for her cat. This is quite a tough aspect of British law based on what I describe below. It is the duty of a cat owner to ensure her cat’s welfare meets certain standards and a cat owner commits an offence if she does not take steps which are reasonable under the circumstances to ensure that her cat is provided with a suitable environment in which to live.

Untidy house too untidy for a cat

Untidy house – too untidy and dirty for a cat. Photo of room(modified) by woodleywonderworks.

The big question is, what is a suitable environment? A domestic cat will live in someone’s home and from time to time go outside into a garden or further afield. The only environment that a person can control will be the inside of the house. It is not considered illegal to let a cat outside even if outside the home is very busy with traffic and other hazards.

However, it is potentially illegal for a cat owner to live in a home that is dirty and untidy. I say potentially because untidiness and dirtiness is a very elastic concept. What is untidy for one person is tidy and acceptable for another. So how do you decide what is a suitable environment for a cat? Also, it is next to impossible to enforce this aspect of British law because what happens behind closed doors is often a secret.

However, in one recent, high profile case, a lady was prosecuted because the police and the RSPCA, who forced their way into her home, described the living conditions as unsuitable with regards to the welfare of a cat and referred to strong smells, clutter and filth in statements to the court. Note: (a) Rather than obtaining a warrant from the magistrates court the police forced their way in under an inappropriate piece of legislation which was created as a means to capture fugitives and not the humble domestic cat. The legislation was Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act – (b) she was also prosecuted for other alleged, cat related offences, all of which were dropped.

The lady in question admitted that she did not have any skills in cleaning and tidying up. This is a slightly peculiar excuse but this lady is described as being vulnerable. She is a concerned and decent cat caretaker, nonetheless, based on what I have read.

What is remarkable about this case is that she was taken to court on the basis that her house was dirty and cluttered which was assessed by the RSPCA as an unsuitable environment for her cats. Personally, I find that surprising because clutter in no way affects a cat’s welfare and neither does some dirt if we are referring to a house. Obviously, if a cat is living in a small enclosure or a cage and the cage is filthy and wet with faeces in the cage etc. then that would be highly unsuitable but in this instance we are referring to someone’s home and measuring the level of cleanliness etc. with respect human standards and I wonder whether this is applicable.

There must be hundreds of thousands of people living in cluttered and dirty homes who care for cats to a reasonable standard. In fact, you could argue that if a person is too houseproud it is unsuited to the domestic cat. Sarah Hartwell has a website which she has called “messy beast”. She decided on that name for an obvious reason.

With respect to this lady, the prosecution against her was dropped because of a lack of evidence but of course she had been through a kind of hell in the meantime and so had her cats who had been taken away from her. A “lack of evidence” is a euphemism for a screw up.

As it happens, rather than prosecuting her it was decided that a veterinarian would vouch for her cats to make sure that they were all right and somebody cleaned up her house. That was the solution. Many people would say that that it was a far better solution compared to a rather mean and nasty prosecution.

This story once again has links to what some people would say is an overzealous RSPCA who are too keen on prosecuting people in the criminal courts. There has been a surge of prosecutions by the RSPCA and people are asking questions why.

The lady’s barrister in court proceedings said:

“Julie needed a charitable arm around her shoulder but instead got the police and RSPCA forcing their way into her home. The Independent Police Complaints Commission should look at this matter very seriously.”

It is ironic that Julie (her surname is Nadain) donated every month to the RSPCA for 30 years! For a person on a tight budget it was very generous of this lady to donate money to the RSPCA and it indicates to me that she likes animals. A person who likes animals will in general care for them well and I believe that that simple fact should have been noted.

A lot of people think that the RSPCA is being led by the wrong person. Apparently, as I recall, the chief executive is standing down some time in the not too distant future.

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Legal Duty of Cat Owner To Provide A Suitable Environment — 7 Comments

  1. Mess and clutter are irrelevant.
    Filth and unhealthy situations like widespread excement, rodent and bug infestations, and moldy foods are totally different.

    • Absolutely, my thoughts as well. I have a feeling that the police and the RSPCA got mixed up between a human concept of what is unsuitable and a cat or animal concept as to what is unsuitable. And I would be very surprised if this lady lived in a house that was unsuitable in terms of untidiness, cluster and dirt which was bad for a cat’s welfare. I guess the Crown Prosecution Service realised that late in the day when they decided to drop the case.

    • Agreed. Clutter and dust and some dirt which does not affect a person’s health surely cannot affect a cat’s health. What is detrimental to a cat’s health will be the sort of filth that can cause disease or make it more likely that the cat will contract a disease. That, and only that should be the criteria for deciding whether a house is unsuitable for a cat in respect of the cat’s welfare. My impression is that the RSPCA did not follow this simple commonsense rule.

  2. It’s crazy! The RSPCA pursue this poor woman to Court for her house being a mess yet they ignore reports about dogs shut outside in filthy kennels and barely exercised, if they do visit they more often than not say as long as the dog is fed and has adequate shelter what can they do, they give the owner advice, but say they’ve no proof of neglect!
    It’s surely worse for an animal, cat or dog, being confined and sitting in filth than the house they have free range in being messy. As long as cats have good food, fresh water and a clean bed I think they are far happier than living in a house where it’s so spotless they aren’t even allowed on the furniture. I’ve been in some mucky houses but the cats haven’t been unhappy.

  3. I totally agree too; filth and clutter are 2 different things. I feel so sorry for that lady and her miserable vile neighbours. I’m so glad she kept her cats and got the help she needed I know for certain I would have helped had she lived near me. Why can’t people just live and let live?

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