This article is authored by Akash Krishnan, a law student from ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad and edited by Nishka Kamath, a graduate from the University of Mumbai. It discusses in detail the history and development of animal welfare laws in the United States and the federal and state laws that govern animal welfare in the country.  

It has been published by Rachit Garg.

Table of Contents


Animal rights and animal welfare have been at the center of several debates over the centuries. From the era of Aristotle, where animals were seen just as objects that were to be used by humans for their benefit, to the modern era of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), wherein animal protection and rights are given utmost priority, the voice of the voiceless is now heard by all. 

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The United States of America has played its part by enacting both federal and state level legislation to protect animals. Organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund have been advocating for the rights of animals within the country for decades and are also calling for the enactment of a Bill of Rights for animals. With this brief introduction to the animal law framework in the country, let us now try to understand the development of animal rights in the country. 


Views of various philosophers

Over the years, many philosophers have penned their views regarding the role of animals in the modern world and the duties owed to them by human beings. One of the first to do so was Aristotle who believed that animals could not be part of human society because they lack the ability to reason. Other philosophers like Tom Reegan, Helena Silverstein, and Steven M. Wise argued that animals were created for the sole purpose of being used by human beings and that they fell below humans in all aspects. They based their argument on the law of nature and stated that the law of nature was created by God for the use of humankind only and, thus, animals could not be a part of the same. René Descartes was of the opinion that animals were devoid of rationality, soul, and feelings. Thomas Hobbes stated that human beings have a right over all animals and can use the animals for their own benefit as they deem fit. John Locke believed that human beings owed a duty to God to use animals to further God’s creation, i.e., for the benefit and development of mankind. The ideology of Aristotle was reiterated by David R. Schmahmann and Lori J. Polacheck in the 19th century, wherein they stated that the status of animals is inferior to that of human beings because animals do not possess intellectual and reasoning capacities. 

The American viewpoint

The early American legal system surrounding animal laws was an extension of these views and saw animals as the property of human beings. It considered owners of domestic animals to have absolute rights over animals, just like they would have over any other property. American jurist Steven M. Wise noted that under the early American common law regime, owners of domestic animals were allowed to abuse the animals and subject them to any form of cruelty as they deemed fit, i.e., animal cruelty was legally sanctioned with the exception that such cruelty should not be aimed at the property of other individuals. In the mid-19th century, animal rights activists started raising their voices against animal cruelty. As a result, subjecting animals to unwarranted and unnecessary violence was prohibited across the country. The state of New York was the first in line to enact anti-cruelty statutes. This statute prohibited the malicious killing or maiming of work animals like horses and oxen, i.e., animals that were commercially valuable. However, it did not prohibit any form of cruelty against animals that were not commercially valuable. 

For the protection of animals, the Federal Government of the United States passed its first law in 1960 and named it the Federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act. One of the main  objectives behind enacting this Act was to ban the stealing and illegitimate trading of domestic pets, mainly for the purpose of research. Another amendment was made to this Act in 1970, wherein the names of several new species were added. It also paved the way for inculcating provisions related to proper food, water, and care for all those animals that were subjected to research in laboratories. Additionally, instead of focusing on the rights of the animals subjected to harm and torture in labs, this Act had its focus on the duty of human beings towards animals; it said no human should treat any animal with cruelty. Further, in 1976, this Act was amended again by the Federal Government; here, provisions for the treatment of animals during transportation were one of the major clauses included. Furthermore, the ambit of this Act was extended to cover handlers and carriers of animals, wherein the individuals were forbidden from subjecting the animals in their possession to any sort of cruel behavior. The Act was again amended after 9 years in 1985, where several provisions relating to the protection of animals from any sort of abuse or cruelty while being experimented on in laboratories were added. This amendment also expanded the ambit of this Act and went about covering more animal species and bringing changes to the already existing penalties for subjecting animals to cruelty.

Animal advocacy movement 

The traces of the animal advocacy movement can be first seen in the 18th century in England, the United Kingdom, where several organizations, including the famous Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), raised their voices to demand legislation for the prevention of animal cruelty. Whereas, in the United States, the animal advocacy movement emanated from the works of Peter Singer in ‘Animal Liberation’ and Tom Regan in ‘The Case for Animal Rights’ in the late 19th century. In the 21st century and modern era, animals advocated are classified into two branches based on the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan.

The supporters of both these movements have distinct goals pertaining to the rights of animals and their protection. Further, they also have different mechanisms and ways of dealing with the issues and to attain the set goals. 

Let us have a look at both the movements, shall we?

Peter Singer 

All the individuals who support Peter Singer advocate for the just and humane treatment of animals in all cases; this moment came to be known as the animal welfare ve.

Tom Regan 

Whereas, the supporters of Tom Regan advocate for forbidding all forms of exploitation. This also includes the banning of using animals for one’s own good; this moment came to be known as the animal rights movement.

The animal welfare movement

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was one of the first jurists to put forth the ideologies advocated by the animal welfare movement. He opined that even though animals lack intellectual capacity and the ability to reason, they can feel pain and suffering. Any action taken against animals should be weighed against the pain that will be suffered by the animal to decide if the action is just and moral. 

Peter Singer provided an extended view of this ideology. He believed that animals can experience pain and pleasure alike and that their interests should be taken into consideration before taking any action that might affect them. He further stated that animal interests should be weighed equally with human interests. However, if the balance weighs in favor of humans for any action to be taken against animals, animal interests would not be considered. He did not object to using animals for any purpose or subjecting them to cruelty by any means if the animal interests are weighed on an equal footing with human interests before such action is taken and the results are in favor of humans. He was of the view that human life has more value as compared to animal life because human existence adds value to society.

In total, the main objective of the animal welfare movement is to prohibit humans from inflicting pain and suffering on animals without considering the interests of the animals on an equal footing with their own interests.   

The animal rights movement

This is the modern form of animal advocacy that developed in the late 20th century, and Tom Regan is considered the man behind initiating this movement. He believed that all animals and human beings are given life by God and, thus, both serve their own purpose in the world, a purpose that is not inferior or superior to the other. Therefore, animals cannot be used by human beings to satisfy their own demands as they deem fit. Because of God-given life, animals have a right to be respected. He called for the prohibition of all actions that would affect the interests or lives of animals and stated that, like humans, animals also have the right to life and liberty. These rights stand on an equal footing to those of humans. He criticized animal welfare advocates on the ground that animal interests should be respected even if human interests weigh more when measured on an equal footing. 

He was of the firm belief that animals should be given legal rights. Thus, his followers call for a world wherein animals are not subjected to any form of abuse in order to satisfy human needs and interests. They call for the closure of zoos and parks that cage animals. They also seek a prohibition on keeping animals as domesticated pets, exposing them to scientific experiments, etc. Regan believed that even if animal experiments were necessary to find a cure for a disease so that humankind could survive, they should not be performed because animal rights should be respected at all times and should not be ignored even if human lives are at stake. 

In total, the main objective of the animal rights movement is to give animals the same rights as possessed by human beings and to ensure that their freedom is not affected under any circumstances.

Timeline of key developments in animal rights advocacy in the USA

Pre-industrialization era

It was in 1641, when a legislation against animal cruelty was introduced for the very first time in America. It was enacted in the state of Massachusetts under the statute of the Body of Liberties. It laid prohibitions against any sort of cruelty towards animals who were held captive for human use. It also had provisions for providing adequate rest to cattles who were being transported from one place to another. Further, in 1828, New York passed the first animal-cruelty law. With the passing of this legislation, a ban was put on all the inhumane activities executed by humans on animals like:

  1. Killing, 
  2. Beating,
  3. Torturing,
  4. Maiming horses, cattle, and sheep.

Furthermore, similar legislation on anti-cruelty towards animals was enacted in Massachusetts in 1835. 

Post-industrialization era 

The 20th century 

Anti-cruelty laws were enacted in every state of  the US in the 20th century. Every state in the United States had its own anti-cruelty legislation around 1907. Later, in 1944, the Public Health Service Act came into existence; the main objective of this Act was to provide an enhanced economic support for scientific research on animals. Further, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) was established in 1951.The AWI was enacted for curbing the distress caused by human activity on animals.  Additionally, the AWI founded the Society for Society for Animal Protective Legislation (SAPL), which acted as the base for enacting the Humane Slaughter Act that was passed in 1958. This Act had provisions for slaughtering animals by way of humane methods and the infliction of minimal pain in doing so. 

Moreover, in 1966, the backbone of all the laws in the US related to animal welfare was passed which came to be named as the Animal Welfare Act. It laid down some restrictions and conditions for the humane treatment of animals. It also inculcated a few specifications related to conducting research and experimentation on animals. An amendment was made to this Act for adding terms in relation to the treatment of animals while carrying them from one place to the other. In addition, a new provision was added to expand the scope of the Act to cover handlers and carriers of animals and forbidding them from committing any inhumane activity on animals in their possession. Besides, the Act was amended again in 1976, which included clauses forbidding animal fighting ventures. Various organizations were established between 1979-1980 that expanded so much that they have now become some of the leading organizations to combat the issue of animal cruelty and working towards the welfare of the animals; some of them are as follows:

  1. Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), and
  2. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). 

In 1985, the Food Security Act of 1985 was amended to include provisions regarding the humane care of animals in laboratories, i.e., providing them with sanitation, housing, ventilation, exercise facilities, etc. The year 1992 saw the enactment of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which called for the criminalization of all violent acts of terrorism aimed at enterprises using animals or animal-derived products in their business. 

The 21st century

In 2006, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was amended and re-introduced as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and the scope was expanded to include academic and corporate enterprises which used animals in the course of their business and classified any person who attacked such enterprises as an enterprise terrorist. The 2018 Dog and Cat Protection Act prohibited the import and export of dogs and cats for the purpose of extracting fur and also prohibited human consumption of dog and cat meat. In 2019, California banned products derived from animal fur from being produced, sold, or imported into the state. Several new bills are in line as of now, including the likes of the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act 2020, which prohibits importing endangered or threatened species into the country, and the Farm System Reform Act 2021, which calls for the reduction of concentrated animal feeding operations, etc. 

Federal animal protection laws 

Over the years, the national government of the United States has recognized the importance of animal welfare within the country and has enacted several laws to protect and promote animal rights. This began with the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act in 1966. This Act acted as the foundation of animal welfare legislation that was enacted thereafter. From providing humane care and treatment to animals to prohibiting animal crushing and cruelty, the American legislature has empowered animals with multiple rights. Let us look into these laws in detail. 

Animal Welfare Act, 1966

The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 was enacted with the intention of prescribing humane standards that have to be maintained by individuals involved in the purchase, sale, and transportation of animals. It also governs the standards that have to be maintained by the research facilities that are involved in conducting research and experimentation on animals. Let us now discuss some important provisions under the Act in detail. 

Important definitions


The term ‘animal’ includes dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and all other warmblooded creatures, whether dead or alive, that are being used for research and experimentation purposes or are being kept as pets. However, the following species of animals are not included:

  1. All species of birds.
  2. Rats and mice. 
  3. Horses, unless being used for research purposes.
  4. Livestock and poultry that are being used for the purpose of improving animal nutrition, breeding, improving production efficiency and quality of food, etc.

Animal act

All acts performed by trained animals in stage shows, exhibitions, or any other form of performance. 


Any person who acts as the operator of an airplane, train, ship, or any other form of vessel that is being used to transport animals from one place to another. 

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)

The IACUC establishes and maintains a research facility for the purpose of analyzing the treatment, care, use, and housing of animals by all three classes of licensees and to ascertain whether the standards being applied by the licensees are in conformity with the provisions of the animal welfare laws. 


This includes any person involved in the business of delivering for transportation or transporting animals, animal parts, blood, organs, etc., for research, experimentation, or exhibition.

Exotic animals

The term ‘exotic animal’ includes all creatures that do not fall under the definition of ‘animal’. Such animals should be native to or should come from a foreign country. It includes animals like tigers, elephants, camels, kangaroos, antelope, lions, etc. 

Farm animal

The term ‘farm animal’ includes all species of domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, horses, etc., that are maintained and bred on farms and are used either as food or fiber. The,y may also be used for the purpose of improving animal nutrition, breeding, production efficiency and quality of food, etc.

Hybrid cross

The term ‘hybrid cross’ includes all animals that are born out of cross-breeding. A cross-breed born out of breeding between two wild animals falls under the category of a wild animal, and if a crossbreed is born out of breeding a wild animal and a domestic animal, it falls under the category of a domestic animal. 

Mobile or traveling house facility

A mobile housing facility includes any vehicle used for transporting and housing animals for any purpose. 

Outdoor housing facility

An outdoor housing facility includes any building, land, or any other open area that is used to hold and house animals. 


A pound can be defined as any housing facility that adopts or seizes animals for the purpose of caring for them and giving them for further adoption. It may be a profitable or non-profitable establishment. 

Sheltered housing facility

A sheltered housing facility includes any housing facility that has the primary purpose of providing care and shelter to animals at all times. It includes both outdoor housing facilities and mobile housing facilities.

Research facility

It includes any school/institution or any person who uses animals for research and experimentation purposes. The following conditions need to be satisfied for an entity or person to qualify as a research facility:

  1. They purchase or transport living or dead animals.
  2. They received funds under a grant, loan, or a United States departmental contract.


Types of Licenses

Class ‘A’ licensee

This includes any person who is involved in the business of breeding and raising animals on closed premises and who acquires more animals for the purpose of improving the breeding within his facility. 

Class ‘B’ license

This includes any person who is involved in the business of purchasing, selling, or reselling animals. It also includes brokers, auctioneers, carriers, and any other individual who is not the owner of the animal and does not have physical possession of the animal. 

Class ‘C’ licensee

This includes any person who is involved in the business of exhibiting animals to the public. These license holders are also authorized to buy and sell animals for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing their collection. 

Sale or transportation without a license

This provision prohibits the sale or transportation of animals to any research facility, to an exhibition, or for being used as pets by any person except an authorized license holder under the Act. 

Revocation of license

If the  Secretary of Agriculture of the United States is of the opinion that any person is acting in violation of the provisions of this Act or the licenses issued thereunder, he may suspend the license of such person for a period of 21 days. This period can be extended after the license holder is given an opportunity to be heard. In the event that it is ascertained that the license holder has acted in violation of the provisions of the Act, he may revoke the license. 

Humane standards

The Secretary of Agriculture of the United States is authorized to prescribe standards for the humane handling, care, and treatment of animals by carriers, dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors. This includes standards for handling, feeding, maintaining sanitary conditions, protecting them from extreme weather conditions, providing them with optimal veterinary care, etc. The object behind prescribing these standards is to provide animals with an environment that protects their physical and mental well-being. 

Standard at research facilities

The operators at the research facilities are obligated to ensure that no pain or distress is caused to animals at any time during the research process. Also, they should ensure that the animals are provided with the necessary veterinary care as and when required. In addition to this, the following standards are prescribed:

  1. Consult with a qualified veterinary doctor before administering anesthetic or tranquilizing drugs to animals.
  2. Consult with a qualified veterinary doctor before subjecting them to euthanasia. 
  3. Provide animals with pre-surgical and post-surgical medical treatment.
  4. They shall administer anesthetics or tranquilizing drugs to animals to ease their pain without causing a significant delay. 
  5. They shall not subject any animal to continuous experimentation without giving it time to recover unless such experimentation is necessary because of the existence of certain special circumstances. 

Animal fighting

The following acts involving animal fighting are declared unlawful under the Act:

  1. Intentionally sponsoring or exhibiting animals in animal fighting.
  2. Attending an animal fighting venture or forcing any individual who has not attained the age of 16 to attend such a venture. 
  3. Intentionally purchasing, delivering, keeping in possession, or training animals with the intention of introducing them to animal fighting ventures.
  4. Use of any medium for advertising or promoting animal fighting ventures.
  5. Purchasing sharp items or objects for use in animal fighting ventures. 

Investigation and inspection

The Secretary of Agriculture of the United States is authorized to conduct investigations or inspections to ascertain whether the dealers, carriers, exhibitors, research facilities, etc., are following the standards prescribed under the Act. Such inspections or investigations can be conducted at any time at the discretion of the Secretary. In the case of research facilities, the Secretary should conduct such inspections at least once a year. The Secretary is also authorized to empower inspectors to seize animals that are being treated in an inhumane manner and also to administer anesthetics or tranquilizing drugs to animals to ease their pain, if necessary. 

If any person interferes with the duties being exercised by the Secretary or any of the Inspectors under this provision, he shall be subject to a fine of $5000 or may be imprisoned for at least 3 years or both. If any person uses a dangerous and deadly weapon in order to restrict the Secretary or the Inspectors from exercising duties, he shall be subject to a fine of $10,000 or may be imprisoned for at least 10 years or both.  

Penalties and appeal

If any dealer, carrier, exhibitor, research facility, etc. violates any of the provisions under the Act or any rule made thereunder, he shall be subject to a fine of $10,000 for each violation. The Secretary shall also pass an order restricting such a person from continuing the violation in question. No penalty can be levied unless the person in question is given an opportunity to be heard. If the person violates the order passed by the Secretary, he shall be subject to a fine of $1,500 for each violation. 

If any person is aggrieved by an order passed by the Secretary, he may file an appeal to the appropriate court of law having jurisdiction to hear the matter within 60 days of the receipt of the order. 

The Twenty-Eight Hour Law

The Twenty-Eight Hour Law was initially enacted in 1873 and was thereafter repealed and reenacted in the years 1906 and 1994. This law prescribes rules for the transportation of animals and the standards to be followed by carriers while transporting animals from one place to another. The authority to enforce this law has been vested with the United States Department of Agriculture. Let us now look into the provisions of this law. 

Confinement of animals

No person shall confine animals in any vehicle while transporting them for a period extending 28 hours without unloading and feeding the animals. This period may be extended beyond 28 hours on account of accidental or unavoidable causes. This period can be extended to 36 hours if the owner of the animals provides the same in writing to the carrier.  

Unloading and feeding animals

Animals who are being transported should be unloaded once every 28 hours for a period of at least 5 hours during which they should be fed properly and should be allowed to rest. The cost of feeding the animals should be borne by the owner of the animals. If the animals are being transported in a vehicle that has sufficient space for the animals to rest and feed, this provision shall not be applicable. 

Penalty for violating the norms

If any individual is found guilty of violating any norms about the confinement and unloading of animals intentionally, a penalty of $100-$500 will be levied upon them.  

Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMSA), 1958

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) passed in 1958 has norms on the humane slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses by causing the minimal possible pain. This clause is extended to all livestock, except that of poultry. Now let us have a look at some of the crucial provisions of this legislation. 

Humane ways for slaughtering an animal 

The HMS Act has two provisions that are considered humane to slaughter animals, they are as follows:

  1.  Slaughtering livestock with a single blow, gunshot, or usage of any kind of current or chemical that causes quick and minimal pain and suffering to the animal. 
  2. Slaughtering animals with respect to the religious beliefs of s community provided that such an activity causes an immediate death of that animal.

The Endangered Species Act, 1973

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 for safeguarding the endangered species of flowers and animals, basically, both the endangered species of the flora and the fauna were protected under this Act. This Act also permits the National Congress to add any endangered species in the list and to further take necessary steps and measures to protect these species. Further, this Act also has clauses of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Let us now glance through the pivotal provisions of this legislation. 

Determining endangered species 

Under the aforementioned Act, the United States Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to determine which all species are qualified as an endangered species. This can be determined with to the following conditions:

  1. Posing as a threat to the present or future destruction of the species as a whole or to its habitat. 
  2. Using that species in multiple places in matters of research and experimentation, thus, causing an over utilization of the same.
  3. Any disease that may cause any harm or damage to the species. 
  4. Any natural or man-made factor that may pose a threat to that species as a whole or to its habitat. 

Prohibited activities 

Under the aforementioned Act, the following activities are forbidden:

  1. Importing any endangered  species into the United States.   
  2. Exporting  any endangered species from the US into another state or nation. 
  3. Carrying or transporting any endangered species within the territory of the US or on high seas that fall under the US jurisdiction.
  4. Busing or selling any endangered species as a part of the interstate trade.
  5. Threatening the habitat of any endangered species intentionally.


Under this Act, if any individual infringes any provision or rule laid down under this Act, the secretary has the authority to levy a fine of $25,000 for every violation. Also, there can be no penalty  imposed on any individual unless the person is given an opportunity to be heard. 

The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, 2019

The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, 2019 (PACT) was enacted with the intention of prohibiting certain specific forms of animal cruelty within the territory of the United States. While several state-level laws existed that prohibited animal cruelty, this is the only Federal Act that specifically deals with this subject. Let us now look into the important provisions of this legislation.



Crushing can be defined as torturing and crushing small animals to death by any means whatsoever. 

Creating animal crush videos

If any person crushes an animal and makes a video of the same, knowing that the video will be distributed or used in interstate or foreign commerce, it shall be considered an offense. 

Distributing animal crush videos

If any person knowingly distributes, advertises, sells, or purchases animal crush videos knowing that they will be used in interstate or foreign commerce, it shall be an offense. 

Extra-territorial jurisdiction

This Act has extra-territorial jurisdiction and applies to any person outside the United States who intends to distribute or transport animal crushing videos into the country.


Any person who violates the provisions of this act may be subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to seven years or both. 

The Lacey Act, 1900

The Lacey Act, 1900 specifically prohibits individuals from importing, exporting, transporting, buying, and selling wild plants and animals that have been taken into possession illegally. It authorizes the Secretary to seize such animals or plants along with the vessel that was used for transporting them. 

Prohibited Acts

  1. An act by which a wild animal or a fish is taken into possession, transported or sold in violation of any national or international law is prohibited.
  2. An act by which any plant is acquired by means of theft of plants from a park, forest reserve, officially protected area, or from any place without authorization for the purpose of transporting or selling it in interstate or foreign commerce is prohibited. 


Any person who violates the provisions of this act may be subject to a fine of $10000 for every offense. 

Other important legislation

Preventing Future Pandemics Act, 2021

The Preventing Future Pandemics Act was enacted with the objective of combating pandemics that are caused by wild animals or their consumption by human beings. This legislation explicitly prohibits the import, export, and sale of wild animals for human consumption within the United States. It also includes provisions for appointing officers in countries where wild animals are consumed at large so as to effectively combat the risks associated with such consumption. It also focuses on international agreements and cooperation as a means to prohibit the sale and consumption of wild animals across the world. 

The Big Cat Public Safety Bill, 2021

This Bill explicitly prohibits the private ownership of big cats and keeping big cats in basements or private houses as they pose risks to the owners and the people living around them. The term ‘big cats’ includes animals like lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, etc. 

The Captive Primate Safety Bill, 2021

This Bill explicitly prohibits any person from acquiring, selling, or transporting animals like apes, monkeys, lemurs, etc., as part of the exotic pet trade within the country. 

The Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act, 2017

This Act explicitly prohibits the sale, purchase, and transportation of dog or cat meat for the purpose of human consumption within the country. 

Humane Cosmetics Bill, 2021

This Bill explicitly prohibits cosmetic testing on animals and the sale or import of cosmetic-tested animals from other countries within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. 

State-level animal protection laws

Apart from the federal legislation in the country that governs animal protection and welfare, every state has enacted its own set of laws governing animal welfare.  These laws generally cover companion animals, i.e., those animals that are most often kept as pets. This includes the likes of dogs, cats, a few species of birds, horses, etc. The state-level laws do not have provisions regarding the research and experimentation of animals, and the federal law is followed throughout the country for the same. 

Shelter requirements for animals

States like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nevada, Arizona, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Tennessee have strict animal shelter laws and it is mandatory that the appropriate authorities maintain proper shelter houses for stray animals. States like Texas, California, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah along with 6 other states have more specific laws and they provide that animals should not only be provided with proper shelter but their health condition in the shelter should also be monitored and they should be provided with proper healthcare facilities. States like Columbia, Illinois, and New York, along with 19 other states, go a step further and provide for the installation of bedding and the maintenance of sanitary conditions in the shelter for the animals. 

Reporting animal cruelty

Social service workers and veterinary doctors are obligated by law to report instances of animal cruelty to the appropriate authorities. They also mandate cross-reporting of such instances between animal and human welfare organizations. States like Florida, Ohio, and Guam have extensive legislation regarding the same. In Hawaii, veterinary doctors are mandated to report suspected instances of animal cruelty as well. However, a majority of the states, including the likes of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Missouri, etc., have not enacted any legislation in this regard. 

Possession of animals by convicts

Some states have enacted laws that prohibit people who have been convicted of animal cruelty from owning animals after their release. States like Washington D.C., Guam, Hawaii, Kansa, and Colorado, along with 16 other states, have enacted such laws. States like Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, etc. have enacted permissive laws, i.e., laws that allow ex-convicts to own animals after the expiry of a certain period of time. 

Sexual assault on animals

Apart from the states of New Mexico and West Virginia, all other states have prohibited and criminalized sexual assault on animals by humans. These two states try such offenses as part of their animal cruelty laws. 

Other laws

If an animal is kept in a vehicle under extreme weather conditions, the person doing so is held criminally liable. This is referred to as the ‘hot car laws’. These laws allow people to rescue such animals if necessary, and such rescuers are free from any criminal or civil liability for the destruction of property caused by the rescue. These laws are prominent in New York, California, Arizona, Alaska, etc. Some states, like California and Maryland, have also prohibited the sale of animals at pet stores unless such animals have been adopted from shelter homes.  States like Illinois and New York have enacted legislation that prohibits the use of elephants for the purpose of entertainment. Some states also have laws regulating intensive confinement of animals, i.e., laws that prohibit the confinement of animals wherein such animals are not free to move within the confined area. 

Animal Protection Index Report

The Animal Protection Index was established with the intent of ranking countries across the world on the basis of the animal welfare legislation enacted by them. The rankings are based on the capacity of the countries to achieve the following goals:

  1. Recognition of animal sentience and prohibition of animal cruelty.
  2. Presence of animal welfare legislation.
  3. Establishment of government bodies to enforce the provisions of animal welfare legislation. 
  4. The extent to which the country is in line with international obligations towards animal protection and welfare. 

Now let us look into the rank of the United States as per the Animal Protection Index Report of 2020.

Recognition of animal sentience and prohibition of animal cruelty

Animal sentience

Animal sentience has not been recognized explicitly at the federal level under any legislation. Under the Animal Welfare Act, provisions regarding ensuring minimal pain infliction during the experimentation of animals have been inserted. The Act also provides for the promotion of the psychological well-being of animals. However, the definition of ‘animal’ under the Act has a restricted scope and includes only a few animals, thereby making these provisions ineffective for the animals not falling under the ambit of the Act. Although state-level legislation provides for the protection and promotion of the physical and psychological well-being of animals, the definition of animal has a restrictive scope. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘D’ under this goal.  

Animal cruelty

The Animal Welfare Act includes provisions regarding the standards of humane care and treatment that have to be provided to animals at all times. It does not include any provisions that explicitly provide for a prohibition on animal cruelty but has provisions that focus on preventing the suffering of animals under certain specific circumstances. However, as discussed above, the scope of the Act is restricted. The Humane Slaughter Act and Horse Protection Act also include provisions regarding the humane treatment of animals. The PACT Act and the Lacey Act include specific provisions prohibiting animal cruelty. All states in the United States have enacted laws for animal protection that prohibit animal cruelty. For example, in Alabama, killing or subjecting to cruelty any animal owned by another person is prohibited. The states of Michigan and Florida have enacted legislation that prohibits inhumane and cruel treatment of animals. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘C’ under this goal.  

Presence of animal welfare legislation

Protecting animals used in farming

The Humane Slaughter Act provides for the slaughtering of farm animals in a humane manner. The Federal Meat Inspection Act reiterates the same and mandates slaughterhouses to follow the guidelines provided under the Humane Slaughter Act for slaughtering farm animals. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law governs the transportation of farm animals. State-level anti-cruelty legislation also advocates the same. However, there is no legislation for the protection of farm animals during rearing. Moreover, the Animal Welfare Act excludes farm animals from its ambit. However, certain states, like California and Florida, have laws that protect animals during breeding. Due to these factors, it has been graded an ‘E’ under this goal.  

Protecting animals in captivity

The Animal Welfare Act provides for the humane treatment of animals kept in zoos and exhibitions. It also covers aquariums, circuses, and animals in the possession of dealers and intermediate handlers. The Endangered Species Act also prohibits keeping endangered animals in captivity. State legislations prohibit keeping big cats and exotic animals as pets. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘D’ under this goal.    

Protecting companion animals

The Animal Welfare Act regulates provisions regarding the sale and resale of dogs; the prohibition of dog fighting ventures, experimentation on dogs; etc. It also has provisions governing online sales of pet animals. The Dog and Cat Protection Act prohibits the import and export of dogs and cats for the purpose of extracting fur. Due to these factors, it has been graded an ‘F’ under this goal.

Protecting animals used for draught and recreation

The provisions of the Animal Welfare Act and the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act 2013 include provisions regarding animals being used for entertainment purposes and prohibit animal-fighting ventures of all forms. Also, state-level legislation prohibits animal fighting ventures and has provisions governing the use of animals in entertainment. Due to these factors, it has been graded an ‘F’ under this goal.

Protecting animals used in scientific research

The Animal Welfare Act and the Health Research Extension Act of 1985 regulate experimentation on animals and provide for the application of humane standards during such experiments. The latter act covers mice and rats, which were excluded under the ambit of the former. The Humane Cosmetics Bill was another step taken in this direction. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘C’ under this goal.

Establishment of supportive government bodies

The United States Department of Agriculture is the enforcing authority under the Animal Welfare Act and all other federal legislations regarding animal welfare and protection. It has an animal care unit that deals with the treatment of animals, a veterinary services unit that governs the life and issues relating to livestock, and a wildlife services unit that governs issues caused by wildlife animals that threaten humans. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has established a center for animal welfare. It also introduced a 2010-2015 strategic plan to protect and promote animal welfare, which was extended till 2019. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘D’ under this goal.

Support for international animal welfare standards

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has provided standards for the transport, slaughter, and treatment of animals for research and experimentation purposes, animal health, cross-reporting of animal issues, etc. The United States is a member of the OIE and implements the welfare regulations prescribed by it. Similarly, the US has also extended its support to the Intergovernmental Conference on Animal Welfare that called for the enactment of a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare. Due to these factors, it has been graded a ‘D’ under this goal.


As of today, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 acts as the backbone of animal protection laws in the country. The states do not have laws regarding research and experimentation on animals due to the effective nature of the federal law on this subject. However, the states have come up with multiple statutes to cover the lacunas under the federal regime by enacting hot car laws, animal shelter laws, prohibiting the use of animals in entertainment, etc. Even though there are multiple legislations in place at both the federal and state levels, the primary objective remains the same, i.e., the protection of animals. The federal government is also set to bring in several new legislations like the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act to prohibit trophy hunting of animals, the Horse Transportation Safety Act to ensure that horses are safely transported, the Pet Safety and Protection Act, etc. Over time, one could say that the country will be able to successfully implement an exhaustive framework for the protection of animals. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

Does the American Constitution advocate for animal rights?

No, the American Constitution does not include provisions that provide rights to animals. No state constitution has included any provisions for animal welfare as well. 

Which was the first act that provided for animal rights in the USA?

The first act governing animal protection in the country was the Federal Laboratory Animal Welfare Act. One of the primary objects behind the enactment of this law was to restrict and prohibit the stealing and illegal trading of domesticated pets for research purposes.

Which are the three national animal welfare organizations in the United States?

The three prominent national animal welfare organizations are the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the American Humane Society, and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).


  3. ARTICLE: Animal Welfare, Animal Rights, and the Path to Social Reform: One Movement’s Struggle for Coherency in the Quest for Change, 9 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 587 

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