What legal rights do animals have?
Do different legal rights apply to wildlife?
What kinds of laws apply to animals?
Who makes animal laws?
Who enforces animal laws?
Can anybody bring a lawsuit involving animals?
What is "legal standing?"
Don't all animals enjoy the same protections?
What is the Animal Welfare Act?



What legal rights do animals have?


Technically, none. The law regards animals as property, with no more redress to mistreatment than, say, your refrigerator. It follows, then, that so-called property owners can, under current law, use their property largely as they see fit.


There are, however, certain legal limitations governed by standards of humane care, anti-cruelty statutes, even regulations imposing owner obligations for the treatment of animals employed in commerce, including those kept as companions.


The fact is that the law, as it stands today, has such low regard for animals that even companion animals possess no more value than the aforementioned refrigerator. If, for example, your dog or cat is injured or killed by someone, the law says she may not be worth more than you originally paid for her, deep emotional attachments notwithstanding.


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Do different legal rights apply to wildlife?


The law considers these animals, too, as property, with the distinction here being that the "owners" are state and federal governments. This means wildlife enjoys certain protections under this rubric of law – regulations that prohibit (or permit, within limits) hunting, trapping and other taking of wild animals.


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What kinds of laws apply to animals?


Just about any kind you can name. Here are various types of law, and examples of how each pertains to animal-specific issues:


Tort Law: Dog bites, nuisance claims, ownership disputes, veterinary malpractice, product liability actions against manufacturers, and sellers or distributors of products or food that have harmed animals.


Property Law: Patents on genetically engineered animals, transfer of ownership, disputes involving condominium members over the right of the members to own animals.


Business Law: Contract disputes between sellers and buyers of animals, and bailment – the rights of businesses dealing directly with animals (e.g., veterinarians, "doggie day care" centers, kennels, groomers, etc.) to hold an animal until they have been paid for their services.


Inheritance Law: Creation and distribution of pet trusts, which are provisions in a person's will to provide for the care of his/her companion animals after the person's death.


Family Law: Arrangements involving companion animals in prenuptial agreements, divorce settlements, and pet custody disputes.


Criminal Law: State anti-cruelty statutes protecting companion animals, defense of animal advocates who have been charged with crimes in attempts to advance animal interests, protective orders for domestic violence affecting animals.


Over and above the common types of laws we've outlined here, various other legal issues may crop up from time to time, e.g. questions relating to vaccinations, responsibilities with respect to degree of care, etc. Thankfully, these situations are rare, but owners should be cognizant of and prepared for obscure and unforeseen legal challenges that can occasionally arise.


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Who makes animal laws?


What makes our mission all the more challenging is the fact that legislators at four levels of government are responsible for making and enforcing animal laws. Obviously then, it's important to know which level is responsible for which legislative arena:


International Law oversees welfare, conservation and trade via multinational accords and other agreements.


Federal Law (administered mainly through the Animal Welfare Act) pertains to animals used in research, dealers who sell animals to laboratories, animal exhibitors, carriers and intermediate handlers, dog and cat breeders, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, roadside menageries and other transporters of animals. The Animal Welfare Act does not protect the majority of animals used in research, i.e. birds, rats and mice. Also excluded from the Act are local pet stores, state/county fairs, livestock shows, rodeos, purebred dog and cat shows and "fairs and exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences." Significant federal laws intended to protect animals include:



State Law covers various anti-cruelty measures as well as other laws covering the treatment of animals, including animal fighting, abuse and neglect, among others.


County and Municipal Law oversees the registration of companion animals, the regulation of "nuisance wildlife" and the enforcement of animal-control initiatives such as limits on animal ownership, leash laws, etc.


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Who Enforces Animal Laws?


Because different laws fall under the jurisdictions of so many government bodies, it's important to distinguish who is responsible for various enforcement issues.


Federal Laws are managed by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT) the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Interior, each of whom may be responsible for conducting inspections on a regular basis. For example, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is charged with inspecting research facilities, circuses and zoos, while the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with enforcing the U.S. Endangered Species Act, hunting regulations, the administration of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other wildlife issues.


Criminal Laws are enforced either by federal or local authorities including police and sheriff's departments.


Civil Laws fall under the dominion of local agencies such as Animal Care and Control, or, in some cases, local police or sheriff's departments. Typical of these offenses are licensing violations (normally adjudicated by an administrative-law judge who would usually levy a fine rather than order an arrest) or property disputes and bodily injury (normally tried in civil court where monetary compensation may be awarded to the plaintiff).


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Can anybody bring a lawsuit involving animals?


In a word, no. While the government can prosecute for criminal abuse and neglect, it's altogether another matter for individuals to sue for similar violations.


First of all, in order to bring suit you must show that you have legal standing, i.e. you are the animal's owner, caretaker or a witnessing bystander whose health and/or welfare has been harmed by the event. If you're merely a bystander who's not been directly affected, you can report the violation to the police, but you risk arrest if you take any action on your own. For example, stepping one foot into the owner's yard to rescue an animal would leave you vulnerable to charges of criminal trespass and theft. Furthermore, there is no provision in federal animal law that allows a citizen to file charges against a federal agency for failure to enforce such laws.


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What is "Legal Standing?"


Since legal standing is defined by law as a person's right or ability to sue, and since animals are regarding only as property (and thus are without "legal standing" of their own), nobody can sue solely on behalf of an injured, abused or murdered animal.


This means a human's ability to sue is limited to proving that the defendant — in the process of abusing, injuring or killing an animal — caused injury or another form of harm to the plaintiff, a human witness. As you might surmise, any psychological damage is, to say the least, difficult to prove in court. In short, animal advocacy has been left standing in the cold, without legal standing.


The tragic irony here is that inanimate objects such as corporations, ships, estates and political bodies are classified as "persons" by law, while living, breathing, sentient beings of the animal kingdom have been abandoned by the forces of legal definition.


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Don't all animals enjoy the same legal protections?


Not even close. The degree of protection depends on different factors, frequently those related to an animal's place in society. Generally, companion animals (dogs, cats, etc.) and working animals (hunting dogs, horses, etc.) are granted broader protections than animals used for laboratory experiments, living in the wild or "contributing to an infestation" (a family of raccoons nesting in your attic, for instance).


Consider the following examples, and how different laws and regulations in different states may be applied to the very same animal, depending on her circumstances:


  • If your dog - we'll call her "Maggie" - was born in a puppy mill, she could be legally held in a cage, barely able to move, and provided with substandard food and little (if any) exercise until she was sold to a pet shop or direct buyer.
  • If Maggie was abandoned and turned over to a laboratory, the law requires that she be sheltered, fed and treated better than she would in a puppy mill, but researchers could legally inject her with infectious agents, deadly chemicals or even cut her open under anesthesia for educational purposes.
  • If Maggie was abandoned in the streets, she could be rounded up and euthanized by an animal control agency, or even shot if she appeared to present a threat.
  • As a home companion, however, the law requires that Maggie receive ample food, water and shelter, as well as essential veterinary care. You could not beat her or starve her, nor in most circumstances keep her chained to a post all day. You also cannot force her to fight other dogs and, in some jurisdictions, you could go to jail if she bites someone at your urging.


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What is the Animal Welfare Act?


The Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. 54, originally called the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, was established in 1966 in response to growing concern for dogs and cats used in research, particularly with regard to a large number of reported thefts of dogs and cats for use in research institutions.


The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was directed to set up a regulatory program to license dealers in dogs and cats, to register animal research facilities, and to establish humane care provisions and a system of inspections. The animals covered were live dogs, cats, monkeys (nonhuman primate mammals), guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits. This Act is not intended to regulate how animals are used for research purposes, but only to set standards for how they are obtained and maintained at a facility.


In order to deal with the problem of stolen pets, research facilities were required to purchase dogs and cats from licensed dealers and a system of record keeping was required for all animal dealers—both Class A breeding facilities and Class B random source dealers—and animal research facilities.


It was recognized that in order for effective change, regulations were needed for the transportation, purchase, sale, housing, care, handling, and treatment of such animals by persons or organizations engaged in using them for research or experimental purposes or in transporting, buying, or selling them.


First revision—1970—Warm-blooded animals; exhibitors; dealers
When the Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1970, the definition of "animal" was expanded to include warm-blooded animals generally used for research, testing, experimentation or exhibition, or as pets, but it clearly excluded farm animals, including horses, livestock and poultry. While mice, rats and birds are now clearly within the coverage of the Animal Welfare Act as "warm-blooded animals," the USDA made a calculated decision to omit them when they drafted regulations to implement the law. But there will be more on that later.


The expanded coverage now applied the Act's provisions to animal exhibitors (i.e., circuses, zoos and roadside shows), and wholesale pet dealers (including breeders who sell to others under the Act).


It also now required humane standards to be maintained at all times, and that animals be given the appropriate use of pain-killing drugs, if that did not interfere with the research—although this is an exception that is widely invoked since in tens of thousands of animals are reported to have been used for experiments involving pain or distress who did not receive any pain relief every year.


The USDA was again directed to develop regulations to implement these provisions.


1976 amendments—transportation, handling, fighting
In 1976, the Act was again amended, this time to include transportation carriers and intermediate handlers of animals under its provisions. The new law also made it a crime to sponsor or promote fighting between live birds, dogs or other mammals in interstate commerce, and the use of civil fines for violations was instituted.


1985 Amendments—IACUCs, Psychological enrichment
In 1985, additional amendments were made that focused almost entirely on the issue of animals used in research. The minimum level of care was stated with more specificity, animal research facilities were required to create Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs), which include the presence of a member of the public from outside the facility. This is the first time the AWA addresses what is being done with animals as research subjects, requiring oversight and approval of each experiment—and requiring that researchers justify how the animals are being used.


A major change that was sought by the animal protection community was a provision that dogs held by research facilities be exercised. Another requires research facilities to provide "a physical environment adequate to promote the psychological well-being of primates." This represents the first time that Congress has extended the concern and scope of the law beyond certain obvious physical requirements like food and water.


1990 Amendments—Pet protection Act
The next round of amendments came in 1990 and was concerned primarily with the treatment of cats and dogs. Government entities, state or municipal pounds or shelters, private shelters, and federal research facilities were required to hold dogs and cats for not less than five days to enable owners to reclaim their lost pets or to allow shelters an opportunity to adopt out individual animals before selling a dog or cat to a dealer.


It also addressed the continuing problem of Class B, random source animal dealers by requiring the dealer to provide the recipient with a valid certification including a detailed description of the animal and the source from which it was obtained. A statement was also required from the provider of the animals that they knew that the dog or cat may be used for research when they released it to the Class B dealer.


2002 Amendments—Mice, Rats and Birds excluded
In 2002, a brief amendment to the Animal Welfare Act was included as part of an Agricultural Appropriations Bill, which "excludes (1) birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research, from coverage under the Act."


But it also required a report on use of mice, rats and birds, that was to be compiled by the National Research Council and submitted within one year to the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry of the Senate on the implications of including rats, mice, and birds within the definition of animal under the regulations promulgated under the Animal Welfare Act. This detailed report was to include the number and types of entities that use rats, mice, and birds for research purposes, which agencies regulate their use, and an estimate of the additional costs likely to be incurred by breeders and research facilities resulting from the additional regulatory requirements needed in order to afford the same level of protection to rats, mice, and birds as is provided for species regulated by the Department of Agriculture, and recommendations as to how to minimize any additional costs.


No report has yet been issued.


2008 Amendments under the Farm Bill
Every five years a massive reconsideration of agricultural policies, regulations and appropriations is conducted. Dubbed "the Farm Bill," this mammoth legislation always starts out with multiple animal protective measures, but history has shown that this is NOT a forum for animal protection/welfare measures.


The 2008 bill was no exception. The Senate version of the bill included amendments that would have delayed the introduction of cloned animal products into the marketplace; incorporated provisions from the Human and Pet Food Safety bills, and would have ended the use of random source animals for research.


The bill as passed by the House would have prohibited both the use of live animals for demonstrations to market medical devices and ended the use of animals from Class B dealers (random source animals).


What actually passed into law was a prohibition on the importation of live dogs under the age of 6 months, (with exceptions) and increased fines for violations under the Animal Welfare Act to $10,000 per violation (previously $2,500).


A panel was also created to look at any independent reviews conducted by a nationally recognized panel of experts on the use of Class B dogs and cats in federally supported research. This panel was charged with looking at existing studies to determine how frequently such dogs and cats are used in research by the National Institutes of Health and to make recommendations outlining the parameters of such use that can be applied within the Department of Agriculture.


This report, issued by the National Academies of Science, concluded that although "random source dogs and cats may be desirable and necessary for certain types of biomedical research, it is not necessary to acquire them through Class B dealers." As a result of this report, in 2013 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stopped funding the purchase of dogs and cats from Class B dealers for research conducted by or supported by the NIH. Despite the positive action, the NIH now use dogs and cats that are purposely bred for use in research, which comes at an even higher cost to animals and the public.


Summary of AWA Protections
In short, the Animal Welfare Act covers many commercial uses of many animals, creating a regulatory network administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


  • Permits are required to buy and sell listed animals or register for their use by dealers of animals, exhibitors of animals, and research facilities that use listed animals, but, pet owners, agriculture use and retail pet stores are not under the control of the federal law.
  • There are limitations/regulations on how animals may enter the controlled chain of commerce, to eliminate the use of stolen animals.
  • There are limitations/regulations on the environmental conditions under which the animals must be kept.
  • Research facilities may purchase listed animals only from licensed dealers.
  • Those who transport the listed animals must comply with published regulations governing the well-being of the animals.
  • Research facilities must create an Animal Care Committees to review the use of animals by the facility and inspect the animal housing facilities.
  • Research facilities must abide by legal restrictions on the imposition of pain during research.
  • Research facilities must comply with extensive regulations concerning the housing and care of animals used in research.
  • In a separate provision, it is made illegal for any person to knowingly sponsor or exhibit an animal in any animal fighting venture to which any animal was moved in interstate or foreign commerce.


The provisions of this Act are enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enacted regulations to implement the provisions of the AWA. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducts annual inspections of all licensed facilities and generally oversees compliance.


Although the USDA is required by the AWA to report to the public on the use of animals for research, the agency has removed many of its public records since 2017 and those remaining lack utility for conducting reasonable searches. Efforts to obtain specific information on animals in research must go through the Freedom of Information Act process. Individual inquiries can take up to a year before a response is received and, even then, the information may be heavily redacted (blacked out) to protect alleged privacy concerns of the researchers.


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