Iowa Dog Bite Law

A dog bite victim in Iowa can recover compensation under a special statute and the doctrines of negligence, negligence per se, scienter, and intentional tort. Iowa is a strict liability state with a law that applies to injuries inflicted upon domestic animals and people.


The Iowa dog bite statute imposes liability upon dog owners in a variety of circumstances. It covers all damage if the dog –

  • Bites a person.
  • Attempts to bite a person.
  • Attacks a person.
  • Is “caught in the action of worrying, maiming or killing a domestic animal.”

The statute does not apply, however, if the victim is doing “an unlawful act, directly contributing to the injury.” It also does not apply if the attacking dog suffers from hydrophobia (a “rabies attack”) unless the owner had “reasonable grounds” to know about the illness could have prevented the injury “by reasonable effort.”

Here is the text of the statute:

351.28  Liability for damages.

The owner of a dog shall be liable to an injured party for all damages done by the dog, when the dog is caught in the action of worrying, maiming, or killing a domestic animal, or the dog is attacking or attempting to bite a person, except when the party damaged is doing an unlawful act, directly contributing to the injury. This section does not apply to damage done by a dog affected with hydrophobia unless the owner of the dog had reasonable grounds to know that the dog was afflicted with hydrophobia and by reasonable effort might have prevented the injury.

The Iowa Supreme Court in Collins v. Kenealy (Iowa 1992) 492 N.W.2d 679 explained the statute this way: 

  • “Our cases under this statute have held legal dog owners absolutely liable, regardless of whether or not the owner was negligent or had knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensity.”
  • “We have observed that the only defense to strict liability is provided by the statute and that contributory negligence was not a defense.”
  • “The only defense provided by section 351.28 is the “doing of an unlawful act…”.”

Emotional distress

When a person is seriously injured, it is presumed that they suffer a degree of emotional distress. When someone witnesses a spouse, child or other close relative bitten by a dog, however, the witness cannot recover for emotional distress unless he meets the criteria established under the law of the state where the accident happened. The case is referred to as a “bystander claim for emotional distress.” 

The elements of a bystander’s claim in Iowa for emotional distress caused by witnessing a dog bite or another negligent injury are that:

  • The bystander was located near the scene of the accident.
  • The emotional distress resulted from a direct emotional impact from the sensory and contemporaneous observance of the accident, as contrasted with learning of the accident from others after its occurrence.
  • The bystander and the victim were husband and wife or related within the second degree of consanguinity or affinity.
  • A reasonable person in the position of the bystander would believe, and the bystander did believe, that the direct victim of the accident would be killed or seriously injured, a serious injury being one which results in serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.
  • The emotional distress to the bystander must be serious, with physical manifestations.

See Barnhill v. Davis (1984) 300 NW 2d 104.

Nonprofit shelter as a defendant

A nonprofit shelter can be sued like any other type of defendant. The fact that the shelter is a nonprofit corporation makes no difference. A person in Iowa who suffered a bodily injury for which a nonprofit corporation is strictly liable can sue the nonprofit corporation for damages. Several cases, such as Sullivan v. First Presbyterian Church, 152 N.W.2d 628 (Iowa 1967) and Haynes v. Presbyterian Hosp. Assn, 241 Iowa 1269 (Iowa 1950), directly address the issue of charitable immunity in Iowa and hold that nonprofit organizations are not immune from suit under these circumstances.