Iowa Dog-Bite Laws

Learn when Iowa's owners are liable for injuries caused by their pets, the state's rules for dog-bite lawsuits, and more.

By , J.D. · University of Michigan Law School
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Iowa places significant responsibilities on dog owners, making them strictly liable for all injuries caused by their pets. Dog owners should be aware of how Iowa law applies to them, including what defenses they might be able to raise if their pet is accused of hurting a person or another animal. It's also important for anyone who's been hurt by a dog in Iowa to know the basics of how a lawsuit might work, including the state's deadline for filing a case and what a victim must prove to receive compensation from a dog owner.

Strict Liability for Iowa Dog Owners

Under Iowa law dog owners are liable for all damages caused by their pets if:

  • the dog hurts or kills a domestic animal, or
  • the dog attacks or attempts to bite a person.

This is a strict liability law. This means that a victim does not have to prove that the owner's irresponsibility allowed the attack to happen, or that the owner knew their dog might be dangerous. A victim can recover damages in a lawsuit if they can prove they were hurt by a dog, and that the dog belongs to the defendant.

Keep in mind that this law covers all damages caused by a dog that attacks a person or a domestic animal. Therefore, a person who is injured by behavior like pouncing or scratching is entitled to compensation just like they would be if they'd been bitten.

There are two important exceptions to Iowa's strict liability dog-bite law:

  • If someone directly contributes to their own injury by committing an unlawful act (for example, by trespassing or attacking someone), then they cannot recover damages from the dog's owner.
  • If a dog has rabies, its owner isn't automatically responsible for attacks committed by their pet. The owner is only liable if they knew about (or should have known about) their pet's condition and failed to take steps to deal with it. In other words, if a victim sues over an attack by a rabid dog, they must prove that the attack only happened because the owner's negligence.

(Iowa Code § 351.28 (2024).)

Iowa Owners' Limited Defenses in Dog-Injury Cases

Iowa's strict liability law prevents owners from raising some of the defenses that are allowed in many other states.

Most importantly, Iowa rejects the concept of contributory negligence. Under a contributory negligence system, an owner can reduce or even eliminate their own liability by showing that the victim was partially or completely responsible for their own injuries. For example, in some states owners can defend themselves by arguing that the victim knew the dog was dangerous and approached it anyway, or startled the animal by petting it too aggressively.

In Iowa, though, the state's supreme court has ruled that the state's dog-attack statute lists the only situation in which a victim can be held responsible for their own injuries. As we discussed in the previous section, to avoid liability for an attack an owner must be able to show that:

  • the victim was committing an unlawful act, and
  • this unlawful act directly contributed to the victim's injury.

(Collins v. Kenealy, 492 N.W.2d 679 (Iowa 1992).)

This means, for example, that an owner could still be held responsible if their dog bites a trespasser. A trespasser who is bitten while approaching the owner's back door in the middle of the night has probably "directly contributed" to their own injury. On the other hand, someone who is charged by a dog while taking a shortcut across a large private yard may not have "directly contributed" to the attack.

Iowa's Criminal Penalties and Local Rules for Dogs and Owners

Under Iowa law, local animal control authorities are responsible for impounding any dog that is roaming on its own and not wearing tags to prove it has been vaccinated against rabies. If the owner can't be located, or does not respond when contacted, it's possible the dog will be euthanized.

The state also imposes other requirements on owners to ensure that dogs with rabies, or dogs that have bitten people, are identified and dealt with to protect the public. Municipalities can impose their own requirements to make sure that dogs don't roam freely, endanger people because of rabies, or engage in other dangerous behavior. An owner who fails to comply with these rules can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Iowa Code § 351.37 (2024); Iowa Code § 351.41 (2024); Iowa Code § 351.43 (2024).

The Deadline for Filing a Dog-Attack Lawsuit in Iowa

All states have laws called statutes of limitations that set deadlines for filing civil lawsuits. These deadlines vary depending on the type of case you want to file. If you've been hurt by someone's dog, your case will generally be categorized as a personal injury lawsuit. Iowa's statute of limitations for personal injury matters gives a potential plaintiff two years from the date of their injury to file a case in state court. There are exceptions to this time limit in very rare cases, but you're always better off meeting the deadline, rather than trying to argue that you're one of the very few plaintiffs who's entitled to more time.

Next Steps in Your Iowa Dog-Attack Case

As we've seen, the rules for dog owners are more stringent in Iowa than in many other places. The state's strict liability rule makes it difficult for owners to argue that they are not responsible for injuries caused by their pets. That doesn't mean, though, that you'll automatically receive compensation if you've been hurt by someone's dog. Whether you're an owner or an attack victim, make sure you know how Iowa's dog-attack rules apply to you. If you have questions about your situation it might be helpful to speak with an attorney who has experience handling these kinds of cases.

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