The Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the federal law that governs the humane care, handling, treatment, and transportation of animals used in laboratories. Contrary to popular belief, it does not prohibit any experiment, no matter how painful or useless; it simply sets minimum housing and maintenance standards for confined animals. The act also covers dealers who sell animals to laboratories, animal exhibitors, carriers, and intermediate handlers, dog and cat breeders, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, roadside menageries, and transporters of animals. However, it specifically excludes retail pet stores, state and county fairs, livestock shows, rodeos, purebred dog and cat shows, and "fairs and exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences."

Fines and/or terms of imprisonment are listed as penalties for violations of the act.

Species Covered by the Act

Technically, the act covers any "live or dead dog, cat, nonhuman primate, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or any other warm-blooded animal, which (sic) is being used, or is intended for use for research, teaching, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes." The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) interprets the act to exclude birds, rats, and mice bred for research, and horses and other farm animals, such as livestock and poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber. Horses and other farm animals are covered if they are used in experiments, but equines are now specifically denied coverage if they are used in entertainment events such as rodeo or mule-diving. Although a 1992 court decision stated that the secretary of agriculture's exclusion of birds, rats, and mice from coverage was "arbitrary and capricious," meaning the judge could not understand why the USDA would not protect these vulnerable animals who make up about 90% of the animals used in laboratories, this ruling is being appealed by the USDA.

The act also, by definition, excludes cold-blooded animals. This is not only arbitrary, since many cold-blooded species are used in research and exhibition, but appalling when one considers that it allows the cruelest of situations to be imposed on these sentient beings (such as forcing giant turtles--who are normally very shy--to give children rides).


Standards have been written specifying the minimum requirements for handling, care, housing, treatment, transportation, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, lighting, shelter, veterinary care, and separation by species. In most cases though, the act does not clearly define "minimum requirements." For example, under "space requirements," it states: "sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement." It is often the case that the "minimum" required becomes the maximum provided.

There are no regulations whatsoever that specifically govern the conduct of an experiment, or what the animals will be forced to endure during an experiment. As an example, the act actually allows the withholding of anesthetics whenever "scientifically necessary," which means that if an experimenter says that anesthesia will interfere with the results of the experiment, then the animal is not given any.

One of the provisions of the 1985 amendments requires periodic inspections of animal research laboratories by an institutional committee. Each committee must have at least three members, and "at least one shall not be affiliated in any way with the facility." This member is supposed to "provide representation for general community interests in the proper care and treatment of animals," but there is no guarantee that this person will be from a humane organization. In fact, most such committees simply "rubber-stamp" the experimenters' work without performing a critical evaluation, and the outside member is chosen from among people known to support animal experiments and whose views do not reflect even basic animal welfare concerns.

In 1993, a federal judge struck down USDA regulations allowing research facilities to make their own plans to meet AWA requirements, finding that the rules violated the law by giving regulated parties the final say in how the AWA should be interpreted. The judge also criticized the government for taking nine years to implement the rules and strongly suggested that they had been written with more concern for the profitability of research than for the proper care of animals.(1) After a nine-month delay, the Clinton administration indicated that it would appeal the ruling.(2)

All Bark, No Bite

The Animal Welfare Act has the potential to improve the living conditions for animals held captive in laboratories, exploited in exhibits, and warehoused in breeding facilities. The responsibility for enforcing the act lies with a division of the USDA known as APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. There are five APHIS sector offices with approximately 85 veterinary inspectors who are supposed to inspect, unannounced, the various types of facilities covered by the act.

However, budgetary constraints and strong opposition from animal breeders, pharmaceutical companies, exhibitors, and experimenters themselves, as well as an inadequate number of inspectors, have resulted in poor enforcement of the act. There are nearly 1,500 research facilities in the U.S., as well as more than 1,800 exhibitors and 4,400 dealers who are supposed to be inspected each year. This means that 85 inspectors have to cover nearly 8,000 facilities nationwide. In a March 1992 audit by the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General, it was determined that "APHIS cannot ensure the humane care and treatment of animals at all dealer facilities as required by the act. APHIS did not inspect facilities with reliable frequency, and it did not enforce timely corrections of violations found during inspections." Out of 284 facilities examined in the audit, 46 had received no annual inspection, and out of 156 that were in violation of the law, 126 of these had had no follow-up inspections.

What You Can Do

Write to your representatives in Congress and ask that they support any pending or future legislation that will increase funding and/or strengthen the USDA's ability to enforce the AWA.

If you believe you have witnessed violations of the Animal Welfare Act, please write to the Deputy Administrator, USDA, APHIS, REAC, Federal Building, 6505 Belcrest Rd., Rm. 208, Hyattsville, MD 20782. Send us a copy of your letter.

(All quotations taken from the Animal Welfare Act as published by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)


  1. Labaton, Stephanie, "Animal Advocates Win Court Ruling," New York Times, Feb. 26, 1993.
  2. "Washington Update," Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 8, 1993

The League for Earth & Animal Protection ( LEAP )
21781 Ventura Blvd., Suite 633
Woodland Hills, CA 91364
(818) 346-5280