The information in this post is meant for educational purposes only. This is not legal advice.
Many people wonder if they are allowed to use deadly force against a dangerous animal, most commonly a dog.
If we are being attacked, we expect that we can do what is necessary to defend ourselves. The principle of self-defense does have limits though. In Utah, you have the right to defend yourself and others, “a person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that force or a threat of force is necessary to defend the person or a third person against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force” and “a person is justified in using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury only if the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the person or a third person as a result of another person’s imminent use of unlawful force, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony” (76-2-402).
Animals are considered “personal property” and it’s illegal to use deadly force in defense of property (76-2-406), but Utah is not forgiving of dangerous animals and the use deadly force against a dog may be legal. Let’s look at an example.
You are walking down the street and suddenly a dog jumps a fence and is aggressively running towards you barking, growling and showing its teeth and is acting like it is going to bite you, knocks you down, trips you as you try to get away or has any physical contact with you. If you feel that the dog will or is causing serious bodily injury, you may have to use deadly force to protect yourself.
You only have seconds to act.
• What do you do?
• What signs did you observe that led you to believe it was an aggressive, vicious animal that could cause serious bodily injury or death in the first place?
• Could you be charged with discharging a firearm in city limits, negligent discharge of a firearm, is this animal cruelty?
• Did you try to avoid the trouble and did you exercise other appropriate options?
• What about the use of less lethal force like pepper spray?
• What would a reasonable person do in a particular scenario?
• Were you in immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury?
• Does the dangerous animal have the ability to cause death or serious bodily injury?
• Can you draw your handgun and use deadly force to shoot the dangerous animal?
• Do you have to be bitten or attacked before you respond with deadly force?
• Do self-defense laws apply to dangerous animal attacks and will it protect you?
These are all very important questions that you need to know the answers for so you can be prepared for these and any other situation with an animal.
Animal rights activists would argue that an animal, especially a dog, is incapable of fully calculating the consequences of its behavior, and therefore, it should not be subject to being shot for bad behavior. Others argue that because the animal is not capable of making human decisions, it should not receive the same self-defense safeguard that humans receive, meaning that deadly force should be allowed in any self-defense situation and holds true with state laws regarding using deadly force against animals. Utah laws explain that a person may shoot a dog under a variety of circumstances without being subject to criminal or civil liability but just like using deadly force to protect yourself, shooting a vicious dog must be regarded as a last resort, life-or-death alternative. As you will read in the laws shown below, a person may shoot a dog under a variety of circumstances without being subject to criminal or civil liability. The law says you can shoot any dog who is attacking, chasing, or worrying a domestic animal having a commercial value, a service animal, any species of hoofed protected wildlife or domestic fowls. This means that you may be legally allowed to defend not only yourself but also your animals, with deadly force. The dog doesn’t actually have to bite you before you can shoot it.
If a dog has bitten you, another person, your dog, etc. as mentioned above, and it has since retreated (ran away) but it’s still on the loose and still a danger to others, the law also allows you to pursue the dog and “any person may injure or kill a dog while the dog is being pursued” if it was committing an act described above.
Once the dog is back in the custody of its owner, and the situation has been controlled, do not show up at your neighbor’s door with your gun. At that point, you will likely incur civil and criminal liability. If the dog is no longer a danger, do not shoot the dog.
Even though the law allows you to pursue the dog, the best option for you, to reduce liability, is not to pursue the dog and instead call the police and/or animal control and let them do their job. If that dog has been previously documented as a vicious dog, it may be legal for them to take the dog from the owner and have it put down in an effort to prevent future attacks.
These laws should put all dog owners on notice as well. To allow your dog to freely roam the neighborhood is to subject your dog to an incredible amount of risk and could potentially result in the death of your dog. In addition, you will be held liable and could result in being sued. “Every person owning or keeping a dog is liable in damages for injury committed by the dog, and it is not necessary in the action brought therefor to allege or prove that the dog was of a vicious or mischievous disposition or that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that it was vicious or mischievous.” Dog owners can be held liable to some extent for negligence causing a biting incident. In cases where the dog owner knew the dog was dangerous or vicious, they face the very real possibility of having to pay punitive damages, in addition to compensatory damages to a victim.
Some signs that may help justify your use of deadly force in self-defense against an attacking dog:
• Growling, snarling, and baring teeth;
• Showing the whites of the eyes by an angry dog;
• Pulled back ears (not floppy or elevated) laying flat against the head;
• Straight, tense, and stiff body of the dog;
• Even, steady run rather than a loping gate.
What are some dogs classified as being “dangerous” and/or “vicious” dogs?
We offer these only as an overall indicator. This is not an indictment of any particular breed since dogs can be abused and/or trained to be vicious and we don’t believe that just because a dog is of a specific breed that it is dangerous. Even within one particular breed, there are exceptions, so accept these (not in any particular order) as GENERAL classifications such as Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Bullmastiffs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas, and Siberian Huskies.
What about other types of animals such as a mountain lion, bear or other dangerous animals which fall under “protected wildlife” as defined by the law?
You are camping or hiking and you see a mountain lion, bear or other dangerous animal and it starts to move towards you and/or runs towards you. As you will read in the laws shown below, a person is legally justified in killing or seriously injuring a threatening wild animal (protected wildlife) when the person reasonably believes it is necessary to protect themselves, another person, or a domestic animal against an imminent attack by the wild animal that will likely result in severe bodily injury or death to the victim. However, you must look at the factors surrounding the situation including the nature of the danger, immediacy of the danger, probability that the threatening wild animal will attack, probability that the attack will result in death or serious bodily injury, ability to safely avoid the danger, if you were the one creating the encounter and if you know about any previous aggressive or threatening behavior by the wild animal.
If you or anyone else is in a home, tent, camper, or other permanent or temporary living structure and a wild animal enters or attempts to enter you are justified in using deadly force if you had a reasonable fear the wild animal’s entry presented an imminent threat of severe bodily injury or death to an occupant of the structure, provided the wild animal is physically capable of causing severe bodily injury or death to a human being.
If you were legally in a place where you were attacked or approached by a threatening wild animal you do not have to retreat. Utah law states that the safety of a human being is paramount to the life or safety of a wild animal.
Bears are also considered protected wildlife. If you’re afraid of the bear and you shoot the bear, then you probably committed a crime, unless it’s legitimate self-defense. If it’s coming at you and your life is in danger, then you’re probably okay.
So how would a person know whether a bear was about to use force?
The term “level three” has been used in reference to the danger factor posed by a particular animal. Level three bears, according to Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) policy, are bears that “have caused significant real property damage to a dwelling, or structure, or are deemed a threat to public safety. A bear should be considered a threat to public safety if it displays aggressive behavior toward humans, has little fear toward humans, or has killed or attempted to kill domestic pets.”
DWR Lt. Scott White has said, “If you’re in fear for your life, then you can shoot any protected wildlife,” he said, using two examples.
If campers yell at a bear in their campsite and it doesn’t go away, White said, then it is a safety issue. On the other hand, if a hiker and a bear encounter each other and the bear runs in the opposite direction, then the hiker should continue on his or her way. If the hiker were to shoot the bear in that situation, the hiker could be charged with a crime.
Buhman, a Utah County attorney, said it would be stupid not to shoot a dangerous animal entering your tent. And White doesn’t remember ever sending a case to prosecutors for someone killing wildlife in self-defense.
Whenever you are hiking, camping, etc you should expect to see wildlife. Be prepared by purchasing bear spray. Studies have shown bear spray to be 92 percent successful in deterring bear attacks.
IF you have to use deadly force against a wild animal to protect yourself:
• Never fire a warning shot.
• Shoot to kill.
• Aim for the center of the bear or other wild animal and keep firing until it is dead.
• You must notify the Division of Wildlife Resources within 12 hours after killing or wounding a wild animal and it cannot be removed, repositioned, retained, sold, or transferred without written authorization from Division of Wildlife Resources.
Protected wildlife is defined as crustaceans, including brine shrimp and crayfish, mollusks and vertebrate animals living in nature, except feral animals. Killing them illegally is a class B misdemeanor.
Killing a bear, bison, bighorn sheep, rocky mountain goat, peregrine falcons, etc. and endangered species, if the situation was determined in court to be non-life-threatening or without justification is a third-degree felony and could result in up to five years in jail, a $5,000 fine and the loss of the person’s hunting privileges in Utah and 30 other states for up to seven years.
Using Force/Deadly Force Against Dogs
18-1-1. Liability of owners — Scienter — Dogs used in law enforcement.
18-1-2. Dogs acting together — Actions — Parties — Judgment.
18-1-3. Dogs attacking domestic animals, service animals, hoofed protected wildlife, or domestic fowls.
18-1-4. Use of arbitration in personal injury from dog attack cases.
76-9-301. Cruelty to animals.
Using Force/Deadly Force Against Wild Animals (Protected Wildlife)
Rule R657-63. Self Defense Against Wild Animals.