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Animal Cruelty (ACT)

In the Australian Capital Territory, the Animal Welfare Act 1992 recognises people have a duty to care for the physical and mental welfare of animals. The Act contains offences, including animal cruelty, and enforcement powers to promote and monitor standards of care.

Cruelty to animals

Section 7 makes cruelty to animals an offence. Cruelty includes:

  • doing or not doing something to an animal that causes, or is likely to cause, injury, pain, stress or death to the animal that is unjustifiable, unnecessary or unreasonable in the circumstances;
  • abusing, terrifying or tormenting the animal.

The maximum penalty for committing an act of cruelty on an animal is 200 penalty units, imprisonment for 2 years, or both.

The penalty increases to 300 penalty units, imprisonment for 3 years, or both, if the cruelty is aggravated. Aggravated cruelty is when the act of cruelty causes the serious injury or death of the animal, and the person intends to cause or is reckless about causing serious injury to, or the death of, the animal. Serious injury is any injury (including the cumulative effect of more than 1 injury) that endangers or is likely to endanger the animal’s life; or is, is likely to be; significant and longstanding.


RSPCA ACT provides animal welfare services and authorised inspectors under the Act, but police are also authorised inspectors.

An inspector can enter any premises to:

  • examine or help an animal;
  • inspect the premises and anything in or on it;
  • take copies of, or extracts from, any document;
  • take photos or video of the premises or any animal or thing in or on it;
  • seize anything believe to be connected to an offence;
  • require a person to help the inspector exercise their powers;
  • question a person in order for the person to exercise their powers

If a person does not help an inspector as required, they face a maximum fine of 20 penalty units ($3200).

Authorised officers

An authorised officer (who is a veterinarian or acting under the instruction of a veterinarian) has all the powers of an inspector and several more. An authorised officer can seize any animal and its dependant offspring if the officer believes the animal is connected with an offence. They can also seize any animal they believe is being kept by or in the control of a person subject to a court order related to animal offences.

An authorised officer can also take a sample of tissue, blood, urine or other bodily material from an animal or carcass on a premises.


If a veterinarian believes an animal is so severely injured or diseased or in such a physical condition that it is cruel to keep it alive, the veterinarian can seize the animal, help it, remove it, and destroy it or cause it to be destroyed in a way that is quick and without unnecessary pain. The cost of this can be recovered from the animal owner as a debt in a court.

Rescuing an animal in a locked vehicle

If an animal is locked in a vehicle and appears to be at risk of serious injury or death, a person will not be liable for any criminal or civil penalty if they forcibly enter the vehicle, or help someone to do this, to release the animal. This applies only if:

  • the person is acting honestly and without recklessness;
  • there are no other reasonable options available to avoid serious injury or death to the animal (such as contacting police);
  • the person’s capacity to exercise appropriate care and skill is not significantly impaired by a recreational drug.

Court orders

A court has the power to make a range of orders for animal welfare offences.

It can make an interim order that the person, on their own or with another person, must not buy, acquire, keep, care for or control any animal within the period stated in the order.

It can make a general order that a person convicted of an animal welfare offence give up the animal involved, and any other animal of which they are in charge, and pay the ACT Government, an animal welfare entity, or another person the expenses incurred in caring for the animal(s). It can also order that the person must not buy, acquire, keep, care for or control any animal within the period stated in the order.

If a person is convicted or found guilty of an aggravated cruelty offence, or a court believes it is reasonable likely a person will commit an animal welfare offence if they were to own, keep, care for, or control an animal, the court can impose a permanent prohibition on animal ownership. This means the person must not, on their own or with another person, buy, acquire, keep, care for or control an animal.

If a person is convicted or found guilty of an offence involving violence towards an animal, before sentencing a person a court can make an order requiring the person to submit to a psychological assessment, and use the assessment result to decide on whether to require a person to undertake counselling or treatment in addition to a sentence.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.

Sally Crosswell

This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

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