Owning a companion animal positively impacts our lives in many ways. From cats and birds to mice and lizards, we adore our pets, and we especially love our four-legged canine friends.

In Australia, a staggering 38 per cent of people live with dogs, making them by far the most popular species of animal companion. With two-thirds of households viewing dogs as family members, the Macquarie dictionary has gone a step further in recognising this close personal relationship by including the term "fur baby".

Companion animals legally regarded as property

While many of us look upon our pooch as a devoted family member, the law classifies all domestic animals as property.

So, when a dog attacks another animal, this is legally regarded as a property dispute, arising from one person's property being damaged by another person's property.

Dog ownership laws in NSW place responsibility for dog's actions on its owner

Under the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998, dog owners have a legal responsibility for their dog's actions and can be held liable for any injury or damage caused by their dog.

If negligence is established, a victim may be able to claim for damages, compensation or financial loss, as well as veterinary or medical expenses from the attacking dog's owner.

Recovery of damages for a dog that's been attacked can be a long and slow process

If your dog is harmed by another dog, it may be difficult to get the owner to pay the expensive vet bill, although a claim can sometimes be made against the owner's home and contents insurance.

In a recent case where a dog was attacked by another, the victim's owner had to pay an upfront $8,000 vet bill to restore her dog's health. While the owner of the attacking dog reluctantly agreed to reimburse the victim's owner, he could only afford to pay $10 per fortnight.

The victim's owner was faced with two options – pursuing a costly court case to enforce a judgement against the attacking dog's owner, or accepting the small regular repayments. Knowing that the man didn't have the money to reimburse the victim's owner upfront, the victim's owner decided to continue with the agreed and very slow repayment plan.

Establishing negligence and determining liability

When a dog attacks another dog or person, the victim needs to establish that the dog's owner was negligent in failing to restrain the dog, or that the dog was held behind inadequate fencing.

If it can be established that the victim provoked the dog, for example, by climbing into a back yard where the dog was kept, or by teasing the dog, liability may be waived. If someone other than the owner is in charge of the dog when it attacks, they could also be held liable.

When it comes to dog ownership laws, particularly where a dog has attacked a person or another animal, it's wise to obtain legal advice. With companion animals legally regarded as property, claims for damages and compensation against another animal do have a time limit and the outcome can vary, depending on the circumstances of your particular incident.

Anneka Frayne
Disputes and litigation
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.