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California Dog Bite Laws

Nobody expects their family pet to attack someone. But the sad truth is that every dog is capable of aggressive behavior and can cause dog bite injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 4.5 million Americans suffer some sort of dog bite injury every year. Given the trauma involved, a dog attack victim might be unsure of their legal rights in the incident’s aftermath. As the owner of a dog accused of biting someone, it’s natural to wonder what possible defenses you might be able to use for your furry friend.

In this article, we’ll focus on California dog bite laws, what to expect if you’ve suffered dog bite injuries, and who is responsible in a dog bite case. Read on to learn about these topics and much more.

Determining Dog Bite Liability in California

If you’re the victim of a dog attack, it’s important to know how you’ll be covered for your medical expenses. It’s usually easy to determine who is at fault in California dog bite cases.

Strict Liability

California’s strict liability laws apply to most dog bite cases in the state. The strict liability standard means that, except for certain conditions, the owner of a dog that bites someone will be liable for damages and medical expenses. Some states have the one-bite rule in place, which means that if the dog hasn’t bitten anyone, the owner isn’t automatically held liable.

This is not the case in California. The state applies strict liability whether or not the dog has previously bitten someone or shown aggressive behavior. While the state doesn’t impose a universal leash law, municipalities in California set local restrictions on pets. For example, in Los Angeles, no dog can be at large, meaning off a leash, in any public area. Think twice about letting your dog romp on the beach unless there’s a well-marked area allowing it.

If your dog bites someone, there’s a good chance that you’re covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy. Most policies have between $100,000 to $300,000 of coverage. But check with your insurance company or your agent to be sure. This will often be enough to cover the injured person’s medical bills and any dog bite lawsuit that might be filed.

If your dog is considered a potentially dangerous dog or a vicious dog, your responsibilities will be increased. Both your civil and criminal liabilities can increase as well.


While California is a strict liability state, an injury suffered by a dog attack that isn’t an actual dog bite injury can fall under negligence. For example, if an unleashed dog was chasing you in a public place and you broke your arm during a bad landing as you tried to jump to safety, you might be able to seek relief under negligence statutes.

In the example above, you’d have to prove the following to have a successful negligence case:

  • A duty of care, such as keeping the dog leashed

  • A breach of duty, which allowed the dog to chase you

  • Cause-in-fact, which states that you wouldn’t have fallen if the dog hadn’t been chasing you

  • Proximate cause of harm, through which the dog’s owner was aware that not securing their dog could cause harm to others

  • Damages, or the personal injury you suffered as you fled an unleashed dog on public property

If all elements of a negligence claim are met, the dog’s owner is liable. If you aren’t sure, have other questions, or need legal advice, consider speaking with a dog bite lawyer familiar with California’s dog bite statutes.

Possible Dog Bite Defenses

As a pet owner, it’s often unfathomable to believe that your beloved dog bit someone. Wishing it away won’t work, so it’s important to know if you have options to protect your furry friend. While you are almost always liable for any dog bite injuries inflicted by your dog, there are situations where you will not be at fault:

  • Provocation: If the victim provoked the dog through abuse, assault, or some other method, it can be determined that the attacker was not at fault. The reasonable person standard determines who will be blamed.

  • Trespassing: A victim guilty of trespassing on the dog owner’s private property may remove the liability. This will only apply if it’s illegal trespassing. If the victim is legally trespassing, you are liable. Examples of legal trespassing include a postal carrier and people entering your property for something like an advertised garage sale.

If neither of these defenses can be applied, as the dog owner, you’ll be liable for any bite incident. In certain cases, criminal charges and fines may also apply. If you feel overwhelmed, consider consulting a personal injury attorney specializing in the defense of dog bites.

Understanding California Dog Bite Laws

California dog bite statutes are written in a way that can be difficult to understand. In the chart below, we’ve put some of the most important ones in plain English to help make them clearer.

California Dog Laws

Civil Liability for Dog Bites

The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place. This includes the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.

Legal Definition of "Lawfully Upon Private Property"

  • On such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon them by the laws of California or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States

  • On such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner

Exceptions to Liability for Dog Bites

You can’t bring an action against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite(s) occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act or assisting an agency employee in any of the following:

  • Apprehending or holding a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect's involvement in criminal activity

  • Investigating a crime or possible crime

  • Executing a warrant

  • Defending of a peace officer or another person

Legal Definition of "Potentially Dangerous Dog"

A dog is classified as a potentially dangerous dog if it, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, does either of the following:

  • Engages in any behavior requiring a defensive action by any person to prevent bodily injury when the person and the dog are off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog

  • Has killed, seriously bitten, inflicted injury, or otherwise caused injury attacking a domestic animal off the property of the owner or keeper of the dog

Legal Definition of "Vicious Dog"

A dog is considered a vicious dog when either of the two following conditions occur:

  • Any dog that, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner, inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being

  • Any dog previously determined to be and currently listed as a potentially dangerous dog which, after its owner or keeper has been notified of this determination, continues the behavior

Time Limit for Filing Claim

You have two years from the day of the attack to file a claim (see California Civil Statute of Limitations for more details).

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts that include federal decisions, ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Dog Bite Laws FAQ

While the details of every dog bite case are unique, some themes and situations are common enough to allow overlap. Below are common questions when dealing with dog bite cases in California.

Do all dog bites in California have to be reported?

We could split hairs and say no, as California law states that dog bites only need to be reported in “rabies areas.” Since every country in California is considered a rabies area, it’s easier to say yes; they all get reported.

In fact, the dog attack gets reported to animal control by the treating physician, not just the dog bites. Even if the bite attempt doesn’t penetrate the skin of the dog attack victim, it gets reported.

The bite is reported to animal control in the county where the attack occurred. The dog is quarantined for 10 days. This will allow the local animal control authorities to screen for rabies and make a determination of status if the dog is a repeat biter.

Are there any laws banning specific breeds in California?

California doesn’t allow the banning of any particular breed. Municipalities can impose spay and neuter regulations on specific breeds. Each dog is evaluated for the possibility of classification as either a potentially dangerous dog or a vicious dog based on their actions alone—not the conceptions or misconceptions about their breed.

Is there a limit on damages in a dog bite injury lawsuit in California?

There is no cap on damages for a dog bite lawsuit in California. While the 2022 national trend showed a decrease in the number of dog bite claims filed, the amount awarded in damages rose to over a billion dollars.

If you plan on filing a dog bite injury lawsuit, make sure you file a dog bite claim with the local authorities as soon as possible after the attack. Doing so is an essential part of getting your medical expenses covered. It’s also necessary for any dog bite claim you may make.

Research the Law

Related Resources

Get a Legal Review of Your California Dog Bite Situation

If you're bitten by a dog, the first thing you should do is seek medical attention. After that, ensuring you recover for your damages from the dog bite injury should be a top concern. Since the owner of a dog that bites you is strictly liable for your injuries, you don't have to prove negligence. A California dog bite attorney can review your case and make sure you’re properly represented.

If you’re the owner of the dog accused of biting someone, having a strong advocate in your corner to fight for you and your canine companion is crucial. A personal injury lawyer specializing in dog bite defense can ensure you get the best outcome possible.

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