It can be distressing to see an animal being mistreated or neglected at the hands of its owners. Or to come across an ill or injured pet who is lost. Do you know who to contact to help the pet and crucially, what does the law say about how to help an animal in distress?

Witnessing cruelty or abuse

If you are unfortunate enough to witness an act of cruelty to a pet, as upsetting as it is and as much as your instincts may well urge you to intervene immediately, you need to bear the following factors in mind:

you may become injured yourself as a result of intervening

dogs are incredibly loyal by nature and could possibly attack you if you became embroiled in an argument with their owner

you may scare off the owner who may disappear with their pet, leaving no evidence for the police to take action.

How to respond

The advice is to dial 999, contact the police and follow their advice on what to do whilst waiting for the emergency response. Each situation will be different.

Suspecting cruelty or abuse

You may suspect neglect, abuse or mistreatment but have no proof – what then?

Cruelty – warning signs of abuse can be an animal who is in poor condition in poor spirits. Sometimes the animal may have unexplained injuries or wounds and display fear towards their owners.

Neglect – of a pet is a difficult area to prove since everyone has different standards they consider appropriate for a pet. Some owners may feed their pets less than others. However, an animal would have to be dangerously thin (or fat) before the authorities would intervene. If you suspect an animal is being neglected, flag the issue with the RSPCA who will conduct a thorough investigation.


The Royal Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or RSPCA is a charity which receives a call every 30 seconds.

It is the largest animal welfare charity in the UK and although it does not have additional powers outside the law, it is the only UK animal charity which actively seeks prosecution in cases of animal cruelty.

Public action is linked to hundreds successful RSPCA actions being made every year, with thousands of animals being prevented from further suffering.

Call the cruelty line

If you need to report cruelty or an animal in distress the 24-hour cruelty line is 0300 1234 999. It is manned 24 hours a day although sadly, sometimes the call volume is so high your call may be placed in a queue. The call is charged at the same costs as a call to a UK landline number.

What to expect?

A trained RSPCA call handler will ask questions in order to prioritise your call and assess whether there is enough information for their officers to investigate. They will ask for details of the animal’s location and owner and a detailed description of what you have seen or heard in relation to the animal’s bodily condition and environmental condition.

 – details of the date, time and place of the offence

 – photographs showing the cruelty provide a clear picture of the abuse, and can act as vital evidence in a prosecution case

Never put yourself at risk in order to take photographs but if you can safely take them, they can be useful. If you have photographic evidence then do mention this to the RSPCA controller who takes your call. 

The RSPCA have guidelines for ‘Five Welfare Needs’.

  • suitable location to live
  • proper diet, including fresh water
  • the ability to express normal behaviour
  • to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • protection from – and treatment of – illness and injury.

You will be asked for details of the pet owners

 – names and addresses of people involved if they are known

 – names and addresses of any witnesses, if they are known

 – registration number and description of any vehicle involved.

You will also be asked to provide

 – your name, address and telephone number

Giving your personal details is mandatory – a policy put in place to minimise malicious and prank calls.

This is for the RSPCA’s records and also in case the RSPCA officer local to the case needs to contact you for additional details.

If you wish to know the result of the officer’s investigation, he or she will need your details to contact you back. Please note that this may only be when the investigation has been concluded.

Will my report be confidential?

Personal information will be treated in confidence and won’t be shared with anyone unless the RSPCA is authorised to do so by law.

Other ways of reporting animal cruelty

You can also contact the RSPCA online service to report animal cruelty here:

How the complaint is investigated

Once a complaint of cruelty or injury has been filed, either by call or online, the RSPCA prioritise all reports in order of severity and urgency.

Trained and experienced officers

Each case is investigated by an experienced and trained RSPCA officer. They attend the site of the alleged abuse and ask the owner to inspect the animal. However, if their owner refuses, the RSPCA officer has no legal right of access.

Police and social services

The RSPCA often works with the police and social services to try and improve situations where a pet may be at risk. Sometimes the animals are removed from a situation.

Education about animal welfare

Additionally, where animals are not receiving adequate treatment because of poor knowledge on the part of the owner, the RSPCA officer helps educate the owner and help them improve the pet’s living conditions until they are within RSPCA acceptable standards.

Court cases

On certain occasions of mistreatment an RSPCA officer may have an active role in giving evidence in a prosecution case that has gone to court.

If you remain concerned

Because of such a high volume of reports, plus having limited resources, the RSPCA respond as quickly as possible.

They advise callers who have reported a situation which has yet to be acted on, to contact them again, if the situation looks like its getting worse.

Healthy stray or abandoned dogs

The RSPCA only attends stray or abandoned dog who are at severe risk from illness or injury.

Dogs who are stray and abandoned – but otherwise healthy –should be reported to the dog warden service of your local council:

Report a stray dog here

Report a stray dog here:

Microchipped by law

Your dog should wear a collar and tag with your name and contact details. By law he should be microchipped which will help you find him if he goes missing.

Lost your dog

The RSPCA recommend this website which is exclusively used by their inspectors.

Reporting a barking dog

Initially a barking dog should be reported to the noise department of your local authority as a noise complaint.

However, if there are any issues regarding the animal’s welfare the council will raise these with the RSPCA later.

Worried about a dog kept outdoors?

Although it is not illegal to keep a dog outside, the pet must be able to access adequate food water and shelter.

How can I help injured wildlife?

If the animal is smaller than a rabbit, getting in touch with the vet or wildlife rehabilitation centre will be the quickest way to get help. Usually these wont charge you for treatment to wildlife. Do always call ahead first to confirm they can accept and treat the injured animal.

Call the RSPCA – if the injured wildlife is larger than a rabbit.

If you find a whale, dolphin or porpoise on a beach?

Remain at a safe distance and do not touch the animal. 

Either call the RSPCA or the British Divers Marine Life Rescue Hotline: 01825 765546 Monday-Friday 9am-5pm

07787 433412 Out of office hours and Bank Holidays

Written by Emma Hammett.

First Aid for Pets provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for veterinary advice. The author does not accept any liability or responsibility for any inaccuracies or for any mistreatment or misdiagnosis of any person or animal, however caused. It is strongly advised that you attend a practical First Aid for Pets course or take our online course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.

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