When Animals Attack: Your Legal Responsibilities As An Animal Owner In Ontario

by Kris Bonn
Small dog attacks and lunges while barking

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Most of us recognize this well-known song from the iconic movie, The Wizard of Oz, but have you ever taken a moment to think about what happens when animals cause personal injuries. Who is responsible?

The difference between wild and domesticated animal attacks. 

First, we need to separate domesticated animals from wild or inherently dangerous animals. The law treats keepers and owners of domestic animals differently than those who keep or harbour wild animals. Under the scienter common law doctrine (rule), the keeper of a dangerous or mischievous animal (that is, a wild or commonly thought to be a wild animal) will be held strictly liable for the injuries caused by that animal. On the other hand, domesticated animals, such as cows, horses and dogs are deemed to be harmless through domestication although they are not necessarily harmless by nature and are known, at times, to have dangerous or mischievous propensities. The presumption is rebuttable.

What does this distinction mean for animal owners in Ontario in a real-life context?

Understanding your liability as the owner or keeper of an animal. 

If you keep a wild animal such as a tiger, lion or similar type animal and the animal injures someone, you will be held liable for the injury. There is liability without proof of negligence. However, for a domesticated animal like a horse that causes an injury, the plaintiff can only attach liability on the owner or keeper if she/he establishes that:

  1. the defendant was the owner of the animal;
  2. the animal had manifested a propensity to cause the type of harm that occurred in the circumstances; and
  3. the owner knew of that propensity

The injured plaintiff has the burden of showing that a domesticated animal has a dangerous or mischievous propensity.

So, if you are injured by someone’s pet tiger, the owner will be strictly liable for the injuries caused by the tiger – no need to prove that the animal has a propensity for violence. On the other hand, if you are injured by a horse, you must prove that the horse had a propensity for violence and the owner of the horse was aware of the violent nature of the horse.

Dog attacks are an exception to the rules as they apply to domesticated animals.

Dogs, although domesticated, are governed in Ontario by the Dog Owner’s Liability Act, which makes dog owners strictly liable for harm caused by their dogs. The Dog Owner’s Liability Act, essentially turns the domesticated dog into a wild animal in the eyes of the law when a dog injures someone. If you own a dog, you should be aware that if your dog causes harm to someone, you will be held responsible for the harm caused, even if you were not negligent or had no prior warning that your dog might hurt someone.

What constitutes a dog attack?

The definition of an attack goes beyond biting. The law has interpreted an “attack” to include chasing a person that causes the person to fall and injure themselves, lunging at the person and causing an injury or running out into the road and causing a cyclist to lose control and crash. An attack goes beyond just biting and does not even require that the dog make physical contact with the person for liability to attach to the dog owner or person who is harbouring the dog.

Liability for a dog attaches itself to whoever is in charge of it at the time of the attack.

That’s right, it is not just the dog owner who is liable, anyone who is harbouring or in control of the dog when the dog caused the injury is responsible for the harm. So if you are dog sitting for a friend and the dog injures someone, you will be held strictly liable for the harm caused by the dog.

The importance of home insurance for dog owners.

Fortunately, if you have home insurance, most home insurance policies cover these types of situations. It is reasonably foreseeable that a person will own a dog and this being the case your home insurance will cover you for the harm caused by your dog. If your dog injures someone, you should immediately report the incident to your home insurer and cooperate with the investigation.

If you are injured by an animal, it is important that you document what happened. It is always a good idea to call the police to file a report about what happened. This will help ensure the identity of the owners of the animal is documented. Also, you should seek medical attention right away. If you are the owner of an animal that caused the harm, you should contact your insurance company to report the incident.

Responsible animal ownership means assuming liability for your animal.

I personally love animals and have a pet dog myself. That being said, dog ownership comes with a responsibility to make sure your dog (or any pet) doesn’t harm anyone else and is kept under control. If not, the law will make you strictly liable for your dog’s actions. In a fair and just society, this is a reasonable compromise to encourage safe and responsible animal ownership.