Animal Rights: Protection of Domestic and Non-Domestic Animals in the United States


Animal rights are rights that inherently belong to animals by virtue of their being living, sentient creatures. These rights include the ability to live a life free from exploitation, devoid of unnecessary pain, without suffering, and with no threat of premature death. Unfortunately, however, the laws that protect these rights are frequently disregarded by individuals and organizations, are not always enforced by regulatory and governing bodies, and lack universal uniformity. So, while animal rights may be provided for in local and federal rulebooks, they are certainly far from guaranteed. Fortunately, though, as awareness increases over just how sentient animals are and as other research avenues reveal themselves, individual states and the nation as a whole, are making an increased effort to provide for and protect animal rights.

Animal Rights for Domesticated Animals in the United States

happy dog on the beach

In the United States, the significant portion of animal rights protection is done by individual states. It is the state that outlines specific protected rights of animals, the state that outlines the penalties for denying those rights, and the state that enforces those penalties when necessary. This isn’t to say that the federal government doesn’t play any role in protecting animal rights, but the federal role in animal protection is significantly less proactive than that of the state.

So what are these state and federal laws and how do they provide for the rights of domestic animals in the United States?

State Laws

State laws that protect animal rights are outlined by individual state statutes. Violations of state statutes may be reported by anyone who suspects that a violation of a specific statute has been made. These violations are then investigated by state organizations such as animal cruelty investigators, law enforcement officers, and animal control officers. If an individual or organization is found guilty of violation of state statutes, they are prosecuted by state court systems and penalties are made at the discretion of courts based on general statute recommendations.

What type of protections do state laws provide for domestic animals in the United States? While all laws vary on a state by state basis, they generally all make the same provisions for all living creatures with the exception of human beings. These provisions include:

  • Prohibition of cruelty to animals. This includes overworking, overdriving, overloading, injuring, wounding, tormenting, killing, or depriving an animal of necessary sustenance.
  • Prohibition of depriving an animal necessary sustenance.
  • Prohibition of torturing, maiming, mutilating, beating, poisoning, disfiguring, or killing an animal.
  • Prohibition of promoting or instigating animal cruelty.
  • Prohibition of the abandonment of animals.
  • Prohibition of conveying animals in a cruel way.
  • Prohibit sexual assault on an animal.
  • Prohibit animal fighting.
  • Provide protections for animals in the line of duty and outline penalties for injuring or killing a law enforcement animal, search and rescue animal, or assistance animal.

These state laws then provide the maximum penalty for specific violations of these prohibitions, outline exemptions, outline the specifics on seizing mistreated animals, and determine whether a violator must forfeit their animal.

Federal Laws

While it is now considered to be a felony to abuse animals in all U.S. states, it must be noted that this is not by virtue of a national law, rather it is the law of each individual state.

The Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act is a unique law in that it is the only federal law in the United States designed to regulate how animals are treated in transport, by animal dealers, when being exhibited, and when being used in research. While this law does not specifically apply to domestic animal owners, it does focus on how their animals may be treated prior to being adopted or purchased. Additionally, this law is particularly important because it established the basic standard of care and treatment for animals upon which other laws have been built.

The Animal Welfare Act was put in to effect in 1966 and applies to a wide range of animals. Since being passed into law, the Animal Welfare Act has been revised and amended multiple times to accommodate societal changes over the years.

Some key points covered by the AWA include:

  • The protection of warm-blooded animals excluding farm animals, poultry, horses, livestock, birds, mice, and rats.
  • The AWA applies to animals handled by breeders, pet dealers, animal exhibitors, researchers, handlers of animals, transportation carriers,
  • Establishing that animals must be treated with humane standards at all times. This applies to transport, sale, purchase, care, housing, handling, and treatment.
  • Requiring that all research including animals must be overseen and approved in order to justify the use of animals in research.
  • Ensuring that the psychological well-being of primates used in research is protected.
  • Making sure that dogs being used and held at research institutions be given adequate exercise.
  • Demand that animals used for research be given pain killing drugs if this does not interfere with research.
  • Making it a crime to promote or sponsor fighting between dogs, other mammals, and birds in interstate commerce.
  • Prohibiting dogs younger than 6 months from being imported and outlining fines for violations of this policy.
  • Requiring that state or municipal pounds or shelters, government entities, federal research facilities, and private shelters hold dogs and cats for a minimum of five days before selling them to a dealer or adopting them out.
  • Mandating that animal dealers must present a valid certification with a detailed description of each animal and details on where that animal was obtained.
  • Establishing that all providers of animals to research institutions must sign a statement when providing cats or dogs to Class B dealers that they know that the dog or cat they are providing may be used for research purposes.

The Animal Welfare Act is enforced by various ruling bodies including the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture), APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services), and Animal Care.

Violations of Animal Rights in the United States

When the laws above are violated, there is an obvious penalty to be paid. As mentioned above, this penalty is outlined by states on a state by state basis. While federal law does come in to play in a select few circumstances, these circumstances are mostly limited to commercial use, experimentation on, exhibition of, and sale of animals.

Animal Cruelty

injured cat

Every state in the United States has legal statutes in place that prohibit cruelty to animals. It is important to note here that these laws do not necessarily provide rights to the animals in question, however, they do provide penalty for cruel behavior towards animals.

How do these laws work? State legal statutes that prevent cruelty to animals work by deterring human violence against animals by creating consequences for such actions. As of 2014 every state in the United States had felony provisions for convictions of animal cruelty. More recent provisions make animal cruelty a class A felony in all states, classifying it as the most serious type of crime alongside crimes such as murder and kidnapping. Conviction of a class A felony involves hefty prison sentences as well as large fines as established by individual states. As of January 2016, convictions of animal abuse will also involve the convicted individual being entered in to the National Incident Based Reporting System, a database used to record crime by the FBI.

Currently, there are four categories of animal cruelty, these include intentional abuse and torture, neglect, organized abuse, and sexual abuse. Conviction of any of these categories of abuse is considered to be a class A felony.

Animal Testing

Laboratory mouse

In recent decades, the use of animals for testing purposes has declined sharply. This decline is the result of increased awareness of the consequences of animal research for the animals involved, as well as an increased availability of alternate research methods.

While animal testing has decreased in frequency, however, it is still being used today by medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic companies. Ideally this type of research will be abolished completely over the coming years, however, in the meantime, there are certain protections afforded to these animals by the Animal Welfare Act.

Enforcement of Animal Rights Protection in the United States

Animal Control

Humane law enforcement in the United States is carried out by individual states. There are various organizations within the state that respond to and address violations of animal rights.

Law Enforcement Officers

Law enforcement officers are government employees who investigate and prevent various crimes in the community. These officers are also responsible for apprehending, detaining, and questioning individuals suspected of crimes. Unfortunately, few law enforcement officers are properly trained to handle animal cruelty crimes, but they are faced with them on a somewhat regular basis. More common instances where law enforcement officers may have to handle such crimes include breaking up dog fighting rings, responding to reports of animal hoarding, and responding to crimes in which they are unexpectedly faced with animal cruelty in addition to the initial cause of investigation.

When a law enforcement officer suspects animal cruelty or neglect they call in animal cruelty investigators and animal control officers to help. It is most often the law enforcement officers job to focus on the human involved in the situation where the other officials focus on the animals involved.

Animal Cruelty Investigators

An animal cruelty investigator is an individual who works for or is contracted by the state. This individual specializes in investigating cases of animal cruelty by observing situations of cruelty or neglect, collecting evidence, and providing the necessary information to bring charges against perpetrators.

An animal cruelty investigator is called on to the scene when animal cruelty is suspected or confirmed and when further evidence or expert testimony is needed.

Animal Control Officers

Animal control officers may be employed by or contracted by individual states. These individuals are responsible for investigating animal cruelty cases, enforcing local and state laws as they apply to animal ownership and protecting animal rights, and they also provide testimony in court cases when required. Their responsibility is much wider reaching and less specialized than that of animal cruelty investigators.

When working with a case of animal cruelty or neglect, an animal control officer will firstly secure animals on the scene. The animals will then be taken for immediate medical attention and impounded. These officers then make a full assessment of a situation to document the condition of animals involved as well as the environment and individuals involved with a specific case of animal cruelty or neglect before turning the case over to animal cruelty investigators.

Animal Rights for Non-Domesticated Animals in the United States

Turkey farm

Domestic animals in the United States are provided certain basic rights by law, but non-domestic animals are provided much fewer. In fact, there are currently NO federal laws that govern the conditions in which farm animals are kept! Not even the Animal Welfare Act provides for farm animals, it specifically denies them protection instead. Additionally, most states also fail to provide for farmed animals under criminal anti-cruelty laws.

So, what is provided for by law when it comes to animal rights for non-domestic animals?

  • The 28-hour federal law states that during transportation of animals, a vehicle must stop once every 28 hours in order to feed, water, and exercise animals.
  • The Livestock Slaughter Act states that livestock (but not birds) must be rendered unconscious and insensible to pain prior to slaughter. This law does not, however, apply to ritual slaughter.

Essentially, the only laws that exist to protect farmstock at this time are those surrounding their death and their transportation and even these laws are significantly lacking.

Violations of Non-Domesticated Animal Rights in the United States

Dairy farm

Since so few regulations are in place to protect the rights of non-domestic animals, there are few areas to address when it comes to violation of these regulations. In reference to the two laws mentioned above, however, violation of the 28-hour act brings a penalty of at least $100 but no more than $500 per violation and violation of the Livestock Slaughter act may (but rarely if ever) result in a fine or imprisonment.

Enforcement of Non-Domesticated Animal Rights Protection in the United States

USDA logo

So who is responsible for enforcing the very few laws in place to protect non-domestic animals? The USDA. The real question is, though, that if they are not providing for the rights of non-domestic animals, what are they doing when it comes to farming, factory farming, and slaughterhouses? The answer is that they are protecting the economy first and foremost and protecting the consumer to a much lesser degree than they should. What they are not doing, however, is providing for the rights of the non-domestic animal.

Will this failure to protect non-domestic animals rights ever change? Some people are hopeful with the increasing exposure of factory farming methods and an increased reluctance of people to purchase the products of such environments, that non-domestic animals will be afforded more rights. Whether this will ever come to fruition remains to be seen.

How Animal Rights in the United States Compare

Sheepdog Statue in Lake Tekapo

With a better understanding of the rights afforded to domestic and non-domestic animals in the United States, one has to wonder just how the United States compares on a global scale.

According to research by the World Animal Protection Organization, the United States receives a “D” rating on a scale of A to G. The reason for this rating? The United States provides very poor protections for livestock and they fall far behind when it comes to humane education.

How does this “D” ranking compare to other countries around the globe?

Other countries with a “D” ranking include South Africa, Indonesia, Tanzania, Kenya, Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Romania, Korea, Japan, and Canada.

Countries with rankings higher than the United States include Australia (C), India (C), France (C), Spain (C), Italy (C), Poland (C), Brazil (C), Malaysia (C), the Philippines (C), Germany (B), the Netherlands (B), Denmark (B), Sweden (B), Chile (B), New Zealand (A), Austria (A), and the United Kingdom (A).

Countries with rankings lower than the United States include China (E), Thailand (E), Turkey (E), the Ukraine (E), Nigeria (E), Venezuela (E), Russia (F), Vietnam (F), Myanmar (F), Pakistan (F), Egypt (F), Ethiopia (F), Niger (F), Algeria (F), Morocco (F), Iran (G), Azerbaijan (G), and Belarus (G).


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