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Overview of the Animal Welfare Act

The AWA offers some basic protections for animals, but not enough


The Animal Welfare Act protects certain animals in certain facilities, but is not as effective as animal advocates would like.

What is the Animal Welfare Act?

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that was passed in 1966 and has been amended several times since then. It empowers the Animal Care program of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to issue licenses and adopt and enforce regulations. The law can be found at 7 U.S.C. §2131.

Which Facilities are Covered by the AWA?

The AWA applies to facilities that breed animals for commercial sale, use animals in research, transport animal commercially, or publicly exhibit animals. This includes zoos, aquariums, research facilities, puppy mills, animal dealers, and circuses. The regulations adopted under the AWA establish minimum care standards for animals in these facilities, including adequate housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care and protection from extreme weather and temperatures.

Facilities that are not covered include farms, pet stores and hobby breeders.

Which Animals are Covered Under the AWA?

The legal definition of the word “animal” under the AWA is “any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warmblooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet.”

Which Animals are Not Covered by the AWA?

Not every animal kept by these facilities is covered. The AWA has exclusions for birds, rats, mice used in research; livestock used for food or fiber; reptiles; amphibians; fish; and invertebrates. Because 95% of the animals used in research are mice and rats and because the nine billion land animals slaughtered for food in the US every year are exempted, the vast majority of animals used by humans are excluded from the AWA’s protection.

How Does the AWA Protect Animals?

The AWA requires that the facilities be licensed and registered or their AWA-covered activities will be shut down. Once a facility is licensed or registered, they are subject to unannounced inspections. Failures to comply with AWA standards can lead to fines, confiscation of the animals, license/registration revocation, and/or cease and desist orders.

What are the AWA Regulations?

The AWA is a general law that does not specify the standards for animal care. The standards can be found in the regulations that are adopted by APHIS under the authority granted by the AWA. Federal regulations are adopted by government agencies with specific knowledge and expertise so they can set their own rules and standards without getting Congress bogged down in small details. The AWA regulations can be found in Title 9, Chapter 1 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

For example:

  • For indoor housing of animals, regulations specify minimum and maximum temperatures, lighting, and ventilation;
  • Animals kept outdoors must be sheltered from the elements;
  • Animals must be offered food and clean water regularly;
  • For facilities with marine mammals, the water must be tested weekly, animals must be kept with a compatible animal of the same or similar species, a minimum tank size is required depending on the size and types of animals housed, and participants in “swim with the dolphins” programs must agree in writing to the rules of the program;
  • Circuses must not use deprivation of food and water or any kind of physical abuse for training purposes, and animals must be given a rest period between performances; and
  • Research facilities are required to establish Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) that must inspect the animal facilities, investigate reports of AWA violations, and review research proposals to “minimize discomfort, distress, and pain to the animals.”

Criticisms of the AWA

One of the biggest criticisms of the AWA is the exclusion of rats and mice, which make up the majority of the animals used in research. Similarly, since livestock are also excluded, the AWA does nothing to protect farmed animals, and there are currently no federal laws or regulations for the care of animals raised for food. Although there are general criticisms that the housing requirements are insufficient, some find the regulations for marine mammals especially inadequate, since marine mammals in the wild swim for miles each day and dive hundreds of feet deep in the open ocean. Tanks for porpoises and dolphins can be as small as 24 feet long and only 6 feet deep.

Many of the criticisms of the AWA involve IACUCs. Since IACUCs tend to include people who are affiliated with the institution and/or are animal researchers themselves, it is doubtful whether they can objectively evaluate research proposals or complaints of AWA violations.

From an animal rights perspective, the AWA does little to protect animals because the use of the animals is not challenged. As long as the animals have adequate food, water and shelter (and many believe these requirements are insufficient), the AWA allows animals to suffer and die in puppy mills, zoos, circuses, and research facilities.

The information on this website is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.

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