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Explanation of 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 by Congress 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 by this Act included live dogs, cats, monkeys (nonhuman primate mammals), guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits.

The Animal Welfare Act was 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 to effect changes that would prevent “pet theft” for the vivisection industry, regulations were needed for the transport, purchase, sale, housing, care, handling, and treatment of such animals.

1970 amendments—warm-blooded animals; exhibitors; dealers

When the Animal Welfare Act was first 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 were now presumed by many to be 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 Animal Welfare 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 Animal Welfare 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. Tens of thousands of animals are still 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 Animal Welfare 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. A minimum standard of care was stated with more specificity and 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 Animal Welfare Act addressed what was being done with animals as research subjects, requiring institutional oversight and approval of each experiment—and requiring that researchers justify how the animals are being used, as well as the number and species used.

Other major changes that were sought by the animal protection community were a provision that dogs held by research facilities be exercised and a requirement that research facilities provide “a physical environment adequate to promote the psychological well-being of primates.” This represented the first time that Congress had extended the concern and scope of the law beyond certain obvious requirements such as the provision of food and water.  

1990 Amendments—Pet Protection Act

The next round of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act 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 now 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, or 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 the 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;  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 by Congress. Dubbed “the Farm Bill,” this mammoth legislation always starts out with multiple animal protective measures, but history has shown that this is NOT a sympathetic 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.”

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, agricultural use and retail pet stores are exempted from the provisions of this 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 Committee 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 made it 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 the Animal Welfare Act are enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enacted regulations to implement these provisions. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducts annual inspections of all licensed facilities and generally oversees compliance.