Environment secretary Hilary Benn has launched a consultation on new codes of practice for horse, dog and cat owners, offering practical advice on keeping their animals.

These will be published on Defra’s website and in leaflets, to help owners understand their responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

“Animals are now afforded greater protection than ever before,” said Mr Benn. “[The new codes] mean no one will be able to claim ignorance as an excuse for mistreatment.”

Although failure to comply with a code of practice will not be an offence in itself, the codes may be used in evidence to support a prosecution for animal cruelty. Under the Act, anyone convicted may be imprisoned or fined up to £20,000.

A Defra spokesman said: “[The codes] give more power to the likes of the RSPCA to prosecute. They set out clearly the obligation of an owner, and if there are any grey areas or concerns, this allows something to be done.”

The RSPCA welcomed the codes, saying that it would be working with Defra to ensure the documents are effective.

“It is very important that pet owners are properly informed of their animal’s needs. After all, a new washing machine comes with detailed instructions — currently most pets do not,” said the RSPCA’s Helen Briggs.

“We hope the codes will prevent animal suffering through education and help owners understand what the law requires of them.”

Consultation on the codes ends on 31 December.

Responses to Elaine Cannon, Area 8B, No 9 Millbank, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR, tel: 020 7238 5332 or email: Animalwelfareconsultations@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (13 November, ’08)