Failure of Animal Protection Laws and Regulations

Issues-Failure-of-Laws-and-Regulations-to-Protect-AnimalsThe Issue

Evaluating animal protection laws and regulations covering animals used for research and testing is a swift process, primarily because there are few protections for these animals. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) establishes basic standards of care for many animals but fails to provide any protection for at least 90% of all animals used: mice, rats and birds. At the same time, state animal protection laws—specifically anti-cruelty statutes—exempt from coverage those animals used for scientific and/or educational purposes.


It is a common misconception that the AWA protects animals against abuse and harm in the laboratory or in other areas of commerce. This is not true. The AWA regulates the use of animals in research and outlines standards for their care; it does not protect animals from harm during the course of research, nor does it prohibit their use. These are the major reasons that NAVS did not support the adoption of the legislation to create the AWA when it was first introduced—because we felt that it was not a true animal protection law.

When the AWA was passed in 1966, it was in response to a growing concern for dogs and cats, primarily lost and stolen pets, used in research. Regulations, which are agency actions that explain how the mandates in a law will be carried out, were established for the transportation, purchase, sale, housing, care, handling and treatment of animals used for research, testing or education. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the federal agency responsible for writing and implementing these regulations.

In 1970, the definition of “animals” covered by these rules was expanded to include “warm-blooded animals generally used for research, testing, experimentation or exhibition,” though it excluded animals used for agriculture. However, the regulations that were adopted to carry out this amendment specifically excluded mice, rats and birds for coverage under the AWA.

When a federal court declared these regulations were invalid, Congress immediately passed a new law that specifically excluded mice, rats and birds from the protections of the AWA. Instead of changing the regulations to comply with the law, the law changed to mimic the regulations.

While subsequent amendments to the AWA and related regulations have improved the standard of care required for animals in the laboratory, they do not actually protect animals from harm. If a researcher insists that it is necessary to expose animals to pain and distress (with or without pain relief) as part of the experimental protocol, the experiment can still be approved under the framework provided by the AWA.

What NAVS Does

Much more needs to be done to actually protect animals used in research from harm. The most significant change would be to replace all animal use with non-animal-based methodologies. Through our investment in the International Foundation for Ethical Research, NAVS has demonstrated that smarter, more humane methods of experimentation are better predictors for what is safe and effective for people.

NAVS analyzes existing animal protection laws and carefully monitors proposed changes through legislative efforts. When changes to existing animal protection laws are proposed—good or bad—NAVS speaks out, contacting legislators and their staffs and encouraging our supporters to make their voices heard on behalf of animals. NAVS provides easy-to-understand updates to many federal and state bills, along with letters to send directly to elected officials demonstrating why they should support or oppose particular legislation.

Even when laws remain the same, government agencies charged with enforcing those laws must be monitored to ensure that the regulations are the best they can be to protect animals. NAVS submits public comments to government agencies, holding them accountable to fairly applying laws, or asking for changes to regulations that could improve the treatment of animals or their living conditions. NAVS also launched an effort to make animal experimentation more transparent by requiring researchers to provide more detailed and meaningful data on the animals they use and how they are using them.

NAVS also continues to investigate ways to amend the Animal Welfare Act to expand its coverage, to finally include mice, rats and birds within its protections. The law can be a powerful tool in protecting the welfare of animals and working to end the use of animals for research, testing and education altogether.