Being the son of veterinarians, I am always disappointed to see cases of irresponsible dog ownership, particularly dogs left to run loose through neighborhoods and breeds known for their aggressive behavior being poorly supervised. Irresponsible behavior with pets, especially dogs, can result in significant liability and, unfortunately, can lead to having the animal euthanized.
Under Pennsylvania law prior to 1996, a person could not be held liable in a dog bite case for the first incident of biting. The “one free bite” rule, however, was eliminated in 1996 by amendments to Pennsylvania’s Dog Law. Now, even the first bite can be presented to a jury as evidence of a dog’s propensity to attack without provocation. Violations of the Dog Law can also lead to fines and criminal penalties. Any person attacked by a dog may file a complaint with the local district justice to charge the owner with harboring a dangerous dog. If the district justice determines the dog is dangerous, even based on one bite, the judge can impose fines and require the dog to be registered. A second bite may result in the dog being put down. The judge’s ruling may also be used to establish the owner’s liability in a civil case for monetary damages.
The Dog Law requires owners to have their pets properly licensed and vaccinated, contained in a home or yard, and kept on a leash while off the owner’s premises. Violations of the dog law, such as allowing a dog to run free off the owner’s property, constitutes “negligence per se.” That means the judge will tell the jury the owner was at fault if the dog bites someone without provocation while off the owner’s premises.
Pet ownership, and especially ownership of dogs, requires a responsibility approaching that of parenthood. Dogs need to be cared for, loved, shown boundaries, supervised, and disciplined when necessary. Ignoring them or, worse, showing them cruelty, failing to meet their needs, and leaving them loose on the streets will create a vicious thug just as much as it will for a child. While the law of criminal responsibility for parents who do not parent is still evolving, liability for irresponsible pet ownership is clear and that irresponsibility may, one day, come back and bite you!