Pennsylvania Dog-Bite Injury Laws and Owner Liability Rules

A dog owner's legal responsibility for bites and other injuries in Pennsylvania, dog-bite lawsuit filing deadlines, and more.

Updated by , MSLIS · Long Island University
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Pennsylvania has an extensive set of laws covering what happens when someone is bitten or otherwise injured by a dog. These rules address everything from what a victim needs to prove to win a lawsuit, to the potential criminal consequences for owners whose dogs are classified as "dangerous." Whether you've suffered a dog bite in Pennsylvania, or you're an owner whose pet may have injured someone, it's important to understand how the state's laws apply to you.

Pennsylvania's Dog-Bite Liability Laws

Pennsylvania has two rules for deciding when an owner is financially responsible for injuries caused by their dog. The state's strict-liability statute applies only to medical expenses, but it also has a negligence rule that applies to all of a victim's damages.

Owners are Strictly Liable for a Victim's Medical Expenses

In Pennsylvania, if a dog injures someone then the owner is responsible for the cost of all of the victim's necessary medical treatment. This is a so-called "strict liability" rule, which means the victim can succeed with a lawsuit without having to prove that the owner did something wrong. It's enough just to prove that the defendant's dog caused the injury. (We'll talk more below about how owners can defend themselves even if strict liability applies.)

(3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502 (2024).)

Negligent Owners Can Be Held Liable for All of a Victim's Damages

Pennsylvania's strict liability statute only applies to medical expenses. Victims who want to recover damages for things like pain and suffering, or lost income, need to show that the owner was negligent.

To show negligence, the victim has to prove that the owner:

  • knew their dog had "unmistakable vicious tendencies," and
  • failed to take reasonable steps to properly control the animal.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to proving that a dog has vicious tendencies. Pennsylvania's courts have held that a single bite doesn't automatically mean a dog is vicious. On the other hand, sometimes a dog can demonstrate viciousness without necessarily attacking someone—for example, by menacing people or by fighting with other dogs.

Similarly, proving that an owner knew their dog was vicious isn't always straightforward. For example, "Beware of Dog" signs could show that the owner knew their dog was dangerous, but it could also just mean that the owner was trying to scare off trespassers. Certain facts are helpful to a victim's case, though. For example, an owner probably knows their dog is dangerous if they've received complaints about its threatening behavior, or if they've talked about its violent tendencies.

In addition, courts will generally find that a dog owner was negligent if:

  • the owner violates Pennsylvania's law requiring that dogs be restrained at all times, and
  • this failure to restrain their pet allows the animal to injure someone.

If a negligence-based lawsuit succeeds, the dog owner could be held legally responsible for the full spectrum of the injured person's losses. This includes not only the cost of medical bills and lost income, but also compensation for non-financial damages like the victim's pain and suffering.

(Deardorff v. Burger, 606 A.2d 489 (1992); Sheptak v. Wagner, 23 Pa. D. & C.3d 46 (1982); Miller v. Hurst, 448 A.2d 614 (1982).)

Defenses In a Pennsylvania Dog-Bite Case: Provocation and Trespassing

A Pennsylvania owner could have several legal defenses in response to a dog-bite claim. For example, the owner could present evidence that:

  • the injured person was hurt only because they provoked the dog, (for example, by teasing or startling it), or
  • the injured person was trespassing at the time of the incident.

Sometimes courts will find that a victim's behavior makes them partially responsible for their own injuries, but that the owner is still mostly to blame. In cases like this, Pennsylvania's comparative negligence rule applies. Under that rule, the amount of money awarded to the victim will be reduced in proportion to their percentage of fault. Victims cannot recover any money if their share of fault is greater than 50%. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102 (2024).)

Pennsylvania's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Cases

Like every state, Pennsylvania sets legal limits on the amount of time that can pass before a plaintiff must file a civil lawsuit in the state's courts. In Pennsylvania, all personal injury lawsuits—including cases stemming from dog bites—must be filed within two years of the date the injury occurred. So the clock starts ticking on the day the victim was bitten or otherwise harmed by the dog. (42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(2) (2024).)

With certain rare exceptions, victims lose their right to sue once this two-year deadline passes. If they file a lawsuit beyond that point, the court will almost certainly dismiss it without even looking at whether the dog owner did anything wrong. (Learn more about the personal injury statute of limitations.)

When Owners Can Be Charged With Crimes Because of Their Dogs' Behavior

In addition to the civil liability described above, in serious cases a dog owner can face criminal charges for "harboring a dangerous dog." For the owner (or keeper) to be found guilty of this offense, a judge has to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the dog:

  • attacked or severely injured a person
  • killed or severely injured a domestic animal, dog, or cat while off its owner's property
  • was used in the commission of a crime, or
  • has a history or propensity to attack people or domestic animals.

Just like in civil cases, owners can defend themselves by arguing that their dog only attacked because it was provoked.

Harboring a dangerous dog is classified as a "summary offense" (a low-level crime), and is punishable by a fine of at least $500.

In addition, an owner found guilty of harboring a dangerous dog must meet requirements that are intended to protect the public and make it easier for the state to keep track of the animal. These requirements include things like:

  • registering the dog with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
  • posting warning signs on the owner's property
  • keeping the dog securely confined when it's on the property
  • keeping the dog muzzled and leashed when it's off the property
  • paying any court-ordered restitution to a victim of a dangerous dog
  • having the dog spayed or neutered and microchipped, and
  • obtaining insurance (or other financial protection) to cover the costs if the dog injures someone else.

An owner who fails to meet these requirements can be found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to $5,000. They also risk having their dog confiscated and euthanized.

If an owner's irresponsibility allows a dangerous dog to attack a person or animal, the owner can face misdemeanor charges. In addition, their dog can be confiscated and euthanized. If a person is seriously injured or killed in the attack, the consequences for the owner can be more severe.

It's important to note that a dog owner could face criminal charges and civil liability based on the same incident. Even if the owner is convicted of a dog-related crime, an injured person could still sue for damages in civil court.

(3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502-A (2024); 3 Pa. Stat. § 459-503-A (2024); 3 Pa. Stat. § 459-504-A (2024); 3 Pa. Stat. § 459-505-A.)

Getting Help With Your Pennsylvania Dog-Bite Case

If you're on either side of a Pennsylvania dog-bite claim—as the animal's owner or as someone who suffered an injury—it could be time to discuss your situation with a lawyer. A criminal defense attorney may be able to help if you've been charged with a crime over your dog's behavior. If you've been hurt, you can learn more about how to find the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

Make the Most of Your Claim
Get the compensation you deserve.
We've helped 285 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you