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What is Animal Law?

Simply defined, animal law is any legal issue that involves animals. More specifically, it is a combination of statutory and case law in which the nature of non-human animals, whether legal, social or biological, is an important factor. And it includes all animals—companion animals, animals raised for food, animals used in research, education and entertainment, and wildlife.

Animal law encompasses many fields of law, depending on the status of the animal (companion animal, wildlife, animals used for agriculture), the activity that involves the animal and the interests of the parties.

Here are some relevant examples:

Torts (also called personal injury law)—where a party has a right to collect money for damages to a person’s body, property, business, reputation or privacy.

Examples: Dog bites, ownership disputes and veterinary malpractice, generally regarding companion animals. This also includes product liability actions against manufacturers, sellers or distributors of products that have harmed animals, such as contaminated pet food.


Business law—governs formation and operation of business corporations and deals mainly with the powers and obligations of management; including contracts.

Examples: Contract disputes between sellers and buyers of animals, condominium agreements, bailment (the right of veterinarians, “doggie day care” and kennels to hold an animal until they have been paid for their services). This would also include documents for the formation of an animal rescue group or adoption agreements with an animal shelter.


Inheritance law—concerns the transfer of property upon the death of an individual.

Example: Creation of a pet trust, which is a financial provision for the care of a companion animal if the individual dies or is no longer able to care for an animal.


Family laws—determines the legal rights and obligations of husbands and wives and of parents and children.

Example: Arrangements involving companion animals in prenuptial agreements and divorce settlements.


Criminal law—deals with crimes, defined as actions considered harmful to society.

Examples: Violation of state anti-cruelty statutes protecting companion animals and protective orders that include companion animals. It also includes the defense of animal advocates who have been charged with crimes in attempting to advance animal interests. Protective orders.


Administrative law—centers on the operations of government agencies, which do the work of government, on the federal, state, county and municipal level. This includes the activities of federal agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and on the state, county and municipal level the action of agencies to enforce licensing requirements and administer rabies vaccinations.

Examples: The USDA is charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which requires minimum standards of care and treatment for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or publicly exhibited. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) administers the AWA, its standards and its regulations; a challenge to the APHIS’ failure to conduct adequate inspections of animal research facilities would be administrative. On a local level, if an animal control officer finds your dog roaming at large and impounds him at the local animal control facility, but refuses to release him when you show proof that the dog is yours, that would be an administrative matter.