A NEW Animal Welfare Act will guarantee animals rights and enable earlier intervention against the prevention of cruelty.

The RSPCA and TV vet David Grant, joined the environment minister Barry Gardiner at the charity's Harmsworth Memorial Animal Hospital, Islington, for ther launch of the new Act on Thursday.

Brent North MP Mr Gardiner said: "The Animal Welfare Act represents the most important achievement in animal welfare legislation for almost a century.

"For the first time ever, there will be legislation to stop the suffering of pets before it occurs. By allowing early intervention this Act works on the principle that prevention is better than cure.

"Persistent offenders will also be deterred by stronger penalties."

The new Act came into force yesterday, April 6, and introduces a duty of care for pet owners to do all that is reasonable to ensure the welfare of their animals.

Pet owners will now be required to provide five key things for their pets: a suitable environment for the animal to live in, a suitable diet, to be able to behave normally, to be housed with or apart from other animals, and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

Jackie Ballard, RSPCA director general, said: "For the first time in history we have a law which enables our inspectors to prevent animal suffering by taking effective action earlier in cases of ongoing neglect.

"Most people are well aware of their animals needs, so the new laws won't affect them or their pets. However if anyone is unsure of what their pet needs, in terms of diet, appropriate housing, exercise, company or veterinary care we would urge them to contact us or their vet for advice."

The Act represents the first time a welfare requirement is being introduced for non-farmed animals and raises the age limit at which a child can buy a pet, or win one as a prize, to 16 years-old.

"The Animal Welfare Act is of great significance to the many thousands of animals that suffer through neglect, and for those of us that work to help prevent suffering," said TV vet David Grant.

Stiff new penalties have also been introduced for offenders which will mean they can be banned from owning animals; fined up to £20,000 and/or sent to prison for a maximum of 51 weeks.

Under the new legislation it still remains an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, or to organise an animal fight, but the law relating to these offences has been revised so that it is geared to tackle the types of crimes that occur in the 21st century.