In our last newsletter, we shared three real-life stories of people fighting off a wild bear attack. These scenarios beg the question: How can a person legally defend themselves against an attacking animal?

We asked your Independent Program Attorney to answer this question for you, so you will know what to do if you are attacked by an animal.

In Virginia, the law of self-defense and defense of others applies when defend­ing against an animal attack. See Smith v. Commonwealth, 2013 Va. App. LEXIS 29 (Va. App. Ct. 2013). If you are without fault in provoking or bringing on the fight, and you reasonably fear that you are in imminent danger of being killed or in imminent danger of great bodily harm, and you use no more force than is reasonably necessary to protect yourself from the perceived harm under the circumstances as they appear to you, then your use of deadly force in self-defense is legally justified. See Virginia Model Jury Instruction 33.800. Self-Defense – Defendant Without Fault. Deadly force is also justified in the defense of another person when you reasonably believe that the person you are defending is not at fault in provoking the conflict and is in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm based on the circumstances.


Wendy the walker is taking a casual afternoon walk by herself near her home in her friendly suburban retirement community. Suddenly, a pit bull dog manages to escape its fenced property and is aggressively running toward Wen­dy. The dog is aggressively barking, growling, and showing its teeth as it is directly approaching Wendy in a very rapid pace with its ears pulled back. Wendy quickly starts to dis­tance herself from the dog’s property attempting to create as much space as possible, but it is impossible to “outrun” the dog. The dog is now 2-3 seconds from Wendy’s posi­tion as she begins to frantically scream at the dog to stay away. Wendy is 65 years old, weighs 110 pounds, and le­gally carries a pistol with her concealed handgun permit.

What is Wendy to do? Does the dog have to actually bite Wendy be­fore she can use deadly force to defend herself? What would you do?

Example continued:

Wendy fires two quick shots at the dog at the last second based on her training from her local self-defense instruc­tor. The dog later dies from the gunshot wound.

Was Wendy’s use of deadly force in self-defense justified? As we have said, events like this will be thoroughly investigated by the law enforcement community. If the law enforcement community believes that Wendy used excessive force, then they may charge her with a cruelty to animals offense. It would then be up to the judge or jury hearing the case to determine if Wendy’s fear was reasonable, under the circumstances as they appeared to her, that she was in imminent danger of being killed or that she was in im­minent danger of great bodily harm. Also that she used no more force, under the circumstances as they appeared to her, than was reasonably necessary to protect herself from the perceived harm.

Every case is different. Some judges, jurors and prosecutors may take the position that Wendy’s fear was unreasonable. Some may take the position that Wendy’s force was excessive and that she should have tried kicking the dog first before using deadly force. Others may believe that what Wendy did was justified. The purpose of this example is to bring awareness to an all too common scenario and educate the law abiding gun owner that they are permitted to use deadly force to defend against an animal attack, just like de­fending against an attack from a person, however, the use of force must still be justified.

There was a recent lawful use of deadly force case where the shooter was defending another person from a vicious dog attack in Roanoke Virginia.

Federal law determines what amount of force, if any, is permitted in self-defense and defense of others regarding attacks on federal property such as national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. In accordance with the principles of self-de­fense, deadly force can only be used against animals while on feder­al land when you reasonably believe that the animal poses an immi­nent threat of death or serious bodily injury to yourself or another. This remains true even when the animal is protected by federal law. Federal statutes expressly allow for the use of deadly force against endangered species and other protected classifications when such force is used in self-defense and defense of others. See 16 U.S.C. § 1540(b)(3) (threatened or endangered species); 50 CFR 17.21(c)(2) (endangered species); 50 CFR 17.31(a) (threatened species).

To View the law for defense against animals in other states click on the state names below:








Select U.S. States and Federal Law