On 18 February 2017, Gerald Cloete, a gardener and refuse collector in Port Elizabeth, was walking down the street of a residential suburb after completing a job. For no reason, and without any warning, he was attacked by three dogs owned by a resident.

Another resident came to his rescue and was also attacked by the dogs. According to court documents, the dogs were finally chased away by the police firing shots at them.

Cloete was attacked so badly that others who responded to the scene thought he was dead. While he survived, one of his arms had to be amputated. Cloete originally filed a R2.4 million lawsuit and, while the final costs weren’t disclosed in court documents, they do reveal the dog owner was subject to pay for the costs of counsel and recompense to the victim.

It’s any dog owner’s and any victim’s worst nightmare.

In South Africa, there are only three recognized defenses against actio de pauperize (the law that holds the owner of an animal accountable for harm caused by that animal):

  • The injured party was in a place they had no right to be (for example, an intruder).
  • The animal was provoked by the injured party or a third party.
  • A third party had custody of the animal and failed to prevent the animal from causing harm (i.e. the pet was in another person’s care at the time).

In this case, the owner of the dogs (who wasn’t home during the attack) claimed that earlier, an intruder tried to break into his home and left the gate wide open for the dogs to escape, although court documents show that this was only speculation and there’s no way to prove why the gate was open.

The Supreme Court of Appeal rejected the owner’s appeal, pointing out that responsibility for the dogs cannot be passed from the owner to the alleged intruder.

What this ruling means for dog owners

South African law is very clear on this: Apart from actio de pauperize summarized above, owners are fully responsible for any harm caused by their pets. Here’s what you can do to keep your dog, other people, and yourself safe:

  • Be realistic about your dog’s temperament and personality and don’t put them into situations that make them anxious or scared.
  • Never let your dog off-leash unless you’re fully confident that they can be around other dogs and people.
  • Speak to your vet about fitting a muzzle that can be worn in certain situations. Muzzles are a controversial topic and should never be used to punish a dog, but can be beneficial for the safety of all involved.
  • Ensure your dog is securely confined, whether or not you’re home. As this court case shows, a broken lock or open gate is no excuse.
  • Seek help from a professional behaviour expert to develop a customised treatment plan.
  • Get third party liability insurance to protect your finances if the unimaginable happens.

Whether you’re worried about your pup’s temperament or simply want to give them the best care possible, our affordable pet insurance plans offer Third-Party Liability that cover any damage your dog might inflict on someone up to R265 000. Get a free online quote today.