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The Animal Welfare Act Grants Protection to Pets and More

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The following is a guest post by Annie Ross, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of political science and international studies at Northwestern University.

On August 24th, 1966, the first federal act to regulate animal welfare in research was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Originally targeting the problem of pet theft for research purposes, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has been expanded over the years to become one of the most wide-reaching federal animal rights laws, ensuring the humane treatment of millions of animals in the U.S.

Black and white image of a man in a white lab coat with a clip board, next to four cats on a table with food bowls.
Cats. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1934 or 1935. Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division. //


The AWA, which was originally referred to as the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-544, was by no means the first act passed by the federal government concerned with animal welfare. The laws that preceded the 1966 law, however, focused primarily on livestock or wild animals, while there was little national regulation about animals used for companionship, entertainment, and research purposes. Although a patchwork of state laws against animal cruelty existed at this time, the exploitation and mistreatment of these animals was not uncommon before the AWA.

Two groundbreaking articles centered public attention on animal cruelty by highlighting the inhumane conditions within dog dealer facilities, particularly those selling to researchers. A 1965 Sports Illustrated article covered the sad case of Pepper, a healthy pet Dalmatian who was stolen from her home and sold to a research facility that used and eventually euthanized her. Life magazine followed a few months later with a similar article titled “Concentration Camps for Dogs,” (vol. 60, no. 5, Feb. 4, 1966) providing explicit details and photos of animal mistreatment occurring at dog dealer facilities. The Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was passed within a year of these two articles.


It is no surprise that the priority of the 1966 AWA was to ensure that the procurement of animals for research was done humanely, leaving the research process itself relatively untouched. To regulate animal sales and acquisition at research facilities, the federal statute gave the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to license animal dealers and researchers and prohibit government-funded research facilities from acquiring animals outside of the licensed dealers.

The act applied to select groups of animals and people. Only research facilities that received government funding and/or acquired their cats or dogs via interstate transportation had to register with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the license requirement for animal exhibitors (zoos, circuses) did not come until a 1970 amendment was signed into law by President Nixon. Additionally, the 1966 act’s definition of “animal” was narrow, limited to dogs, cats, monkeys, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits. This definition was expanded in the 1970 amendments to include all warm-blooded animals (excluding livestock) (§ 3).

A black and white image of President Nixon on the White House lawn with his dog on a leash.
President Nixon w/ new dog, White House. Warren K. Leffler, photographer, 1969. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //

Key provisions in later amendments include the mandated use of anesthetics for animals in experiments (as long as the drug does not interfere with the research process) (§ 14), the prohibition against knowingly transporting or using animals for fighting ventures (§ 17), and the explicit exclusion of birds, rats, and mice from the definition of animal (§ 10301), thereby excluding these species from the protections granted to animals in research by the AWA.

In total, the AWA has been amended eight times in the past 55 years, and most of these amendments have greatly expanded its jurisdiction.

Black and white image of people reaching out to an elephant at a zoo, with two sets of metal fences between them.
Elephant at zoo. 1926. Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division. //


The AWA is enforced under the Animal Care program of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Inspections of facilities that utilize or exhibit animals are carried out regularly. Warning notices, fines, or more severe consequences such as license revocation or prosecution may be issued by the APHIS if noncompliance is observed.

In light of recent statistics indicating lower numbers of warnings and cases initiated by the APHIS than in previous years, there has been pressure by prominent animal welfare organizations to improve the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act. A bill addressing this measure titled “Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act” was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, but not enacted.

A Timeline of the Animal Welfare Act and its Amendments:

Additional Resources on Animal Welfare Laws:

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Comments (3)

  1. In reading this act it appears it includes wild animals such as horses . At this time this act is being violated by the BLM (bureau of land management) and the Department of the Interior? Stampeding wild horses into traps and then sending them out of our country to Mexico and Canada is breaking part of this law ? It needs to be stopped!!

  2. Your article is very helpful for me after reading your article I got a lot of information my name Elias Jaxon. I am gating information about cat your article is very fantastic.

  3. You should update this to include recent (2023) changes to the AWA, making it applicable to birds not bred for research.

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