Overview of the Animal Welfare Act

Are Protections for Animals Enough?

A cow behind bars

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The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that was passed in 1966 and has been amended several times since then, notably in 2006. 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 meant to protect the basic welfare of creatures kept in captivity. The law can be found at the official United States Government Publishing Office under its proper bill title: 7 U.S.C. §2131.

The Animal Welfare Act protects certain animals in certain facilities but is not as effective as animal advocates would like. Many complain about its limited scope, and some even argue that animals are entitled to rights and freedoms equal to humans and should not be owned or used in any regard.

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, hobby breeders, and places that commonly hold pets as well as quasi-commercial animals like milk cows and bure-pred dogs. Without the protection guaranteed to animals in other facilities and industries, these animals sometimes suffer harsh treatment—though animal rights groups often step in to defend these creatures.

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

Which Animals Are and Are Not Covered?

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 warm-blooded 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.”

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

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.

Some of these regulations include those for the indoor housing of animals, which specify minimum and maximum temperatures, lighting, and ventilation. Regulations for animals kept outdoors maintain that the creature must be sheltered from the elements and offered food and clean water regularly.

Also, for facilities with marine mammals, the water must be tested weekly and animals must be kept with a compatible animal of the same or similar species. In addition, a minimum tank size is required, depending on the size and types of animals housed. Participants in “swim with the dolphins” programs must agree in writing to the rules of the program.

Circuses, which have been under constant fire since animal rights activism increased in the 1960s, 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. Research facilities are also 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 Animal Welfare Act

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 is also excluded, the AWA does nothing to protect farmed animals. 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 animal rights advocates claim that the regulations for marine mammals are especially inadequate. Marine mammals in the wild swim for miles each day and dive hundreds of feet deep in the open ocean, while 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 are directed against the IACUCs. Since IACUCs tend to include people who are affiliated with the institution or are animal researchers themselves, many advocates question whether these committees can objectively evaluate research proposals or complaints of AWA violations.