Enacted in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act is a law passed by the United States Congress that provides for the oversight and regulation of the treatment and use of animals in research settings as well as in transport, during exhibition and by dealers. Initially, the purpose of the Animal Welfare Act was limited to safeguarding the welfare of animals used for research or experimental purposes, but this act has been amended many times since 1966 and been made more inclusive of the animals and circumstances covered by it. Enforcement of the act falls under the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS), which is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Countries such as the United Kingdom, Japan, and Switzerland have enacted similar legislation protecting the welfare of animals.
The Animal Welfare Act mandated certain minimally accepted standards of treatment and care that must be provided for the animals that have been designated as being protected by it. Standards were established by the Animal Welfare Act to cover concerns such as basic humane treatment, care and handling. Included in the standards also are items relating to adequate exercise, nutrition, water, housing, lighting, ventilation, veterinary care and separation by species.
Only certain classes of animals are protected by the Animal Welfare Act. Excluded from coverage by the act are invertebrates such as worms or fruit flies and cold-blooded animals such as reptiles or fish. Birds, as well as rats and mice bred for research, also are excluded.
Warm-blooded animals such as dogs, cats, primates, guinea pigs and rabbits are covered. Farm animals used as research subjects are covered by the act, but those used in the production of food and fiber are not. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture determines which warm-blooded animals are protected by the act.
In addition, the Animal Welfare Act affects animals only in certain circumstances. The standards of care required by the act apply directly to animal exhibitions such as roadside menageries, animals in research facilities, zoos, circuses and breeders of dogs and cats. The act also applies to transporters and dealers who breed animals for research facilities. Individuals and businesses that provide or engage in these activities and services are required to be either licensed or registered and are subject to inspections. Some businesses and activities, such as retail pet stores and state fairs or county fairs, are exempt from the Animal Welfare Act.