Are There Any Laws That Protect Animals?

You might be wondering whether there are any laws in the U.S. that protect animals. Maybe you’re working on a school project about animal welfare laws or studying up to campaign in animals’ behalf and you need info. We’ve got you covered. 😉

Here are some of the most notable animal welfare laws in the country, what they accomplish, and why we need to keep pushing for better protection for animals.


There are only a handful of federal laws protecting animals. Getting legislation passed on a federal level usually requires a lot more work than on a state level and is often more politically challenging. Here are some of the existing federal laws:

The Animal Welfare Act

The main federal animal protection law is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, it directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set standards for the well-being of animals in laboratories, zoos, and breeding facilities.

It’s far from perfect, though—it doesn’t cover animals used for food or “fiber” (their skin, wool, etc.), mice and rats bred for use in research, horses used for purposes that don’t involve experiments, or cold-blooded animals. It only recently set standards for birds who aren’t used in experiments, and there are still a ton of exemptions. 😒

The law’s minimal protections don’t cover the vast majority of animals who endure the worst abuse. Even for ones the AWA does cover, their well-being isn’t guaranteed—the USDA does a poor job enforcing the law and frequently allows cruelty to go unchecked.

The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, protects animals (and plants) listed as threatened or endangered from being harmed or harassed. It establishes criminal and civil penalties for people who break the law, which sounds good in theory.

But there’s a huge loophole: If someone wants to remove an animal covered by this law from their natural habitat, they just have to get a permit by simply donating to a conservation group. This ridiculous “pay to play” scheme lets hunting ranches kill endangered species. That’s a pretty big flaw for a law called the Endangered Species Act. 🤦

One positive point is that the ESA is one of the few animal protection laws with a citizen suit provision. This allows people to sue those accused of violating the law instead of relying on government enforcement, which has led to great ESA victories.

The Lacey Act

Back in 1900, President William McKinley signed the Lacey Act into law as the first federal legislation protecting wild animals. It bans trading and trafficking wild animals who have been illegally obtained, transported, or sold. It also bans falsifying documents for selling and shipping wildlife, so it can be used to prosecute both people who actually smuggle animals and people who falsify documents to try to smuggle them.

The Lacey Act was just recently amended to include the Big Cat Public Safety Act, which prohibits private ownership of big cats (people who already have tigers, lions, and others must get a license, but they’re restricted from breeding the animals) and bans public contact with these animals. It’s good to see we’re still taking steps in the right direction!

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) is a weird one. First passed in 1958 and then amended in 1978, it requires that animals be stunned or sedated into unconsciousness before being slaughtered in order to minimize suffering. So it doesn’t do anything to improve life for animals on farms before they’re slaughtered—no federal law does—or decrease the number who are slaughtered, but it seems to make the practice of killing animals for their flesh less cruel.

But does it really? First of all, the HMSA doesn’t cover chickens, turkeys, or other birds, even though they can feel pain and they make up the vast majority of animals killed for food. Second, enforcement of this law has been nearly nonexistent. Violations are common—workers still sometimes fail to render animals unconscious before they’re killed, resulting in prolonged, agonizing deaths, including with the government’s approval.

The USDA is in charge of enforcing the law, but the agency has never referred a violation to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution, even though the law explicitly allows this. We need way more comprehensive and better enforced laws to truly decrease animal suffering.

Twenty-Eight Hour Law

Here’s yet another law that doesn’t go far enough toward ensuring animals’ well-being. Enacted in 1873, the Twenty-Eight Hour Law requires vehicles transporting animals for slaughter to stop every 28 hours so the animals can stretch their limbs and get food and water. While it’s better to have a law like this than not, it still allows animals to be confined to a crowded truck for 27 hours and 59 minutes straight without getting out to eat, drink, and move around.

Like many of the other laws, this one includes major exemptions. It allows for extensions upon request, it doesn’t apply to the time spent loading and unloading or if the animals being transported have access to food or water inside the vehicle, and birds (such as chickens and turkeys) aren’t covered at all. It’s also rarely enforced, leaving many animals to suffer during exhausting journeys.


Most laws protecting animals are enacted and enforced at the state or local level. Each U.S. state has a felony cruelty-to-animals law, although the definition of and penalties for “cruelty” vary by state. The felony cruelty-to-animals laws typically prohibit unnecessary and unjustifiable suffering like that caused by torturing, neglecting, and abandoning animals. Here are some more state and local laws making a difference for various types of animals:

Companion Animals

State laws usually give companion animals the strongest level of protection. Some laws set standards for how long animal shelters must hold stray dogs and cats before putting them up for adoption or how frequently people must get their animal companions vaccinated against rabies.

There are also “hot car laws,” which criminalize leaving an animal in a vehicle in hot weather. Under certain circumstances, people may be able to break into a car to rescue them without penalty. Some laws have recently grown in popularity, like those limiting how long animals can be tied up outside or including animals in domestic violence protective orders. A few states also require retailers like pet stores to sell only animals from shelters and rescue groups—not from breeders.

Animals on Farms

State animal protection laws often don’t cover animals on farms or they exempt “customary” (but abusive) farming practices, but some states have laws limiting the use of “intensive confinement.” This is when animals are confined to spaces so tight that they often can’t stand up or move around. Chickens imprisoned in battery cages don’t even have enough room to stretch their wings.

Laws restricting “intensive confinement” are well intentioned but ultimately fail at stopping any significant abuse by the meat, egg, and dairy industries. We need much bolder actions to address the suffering animals endure on farms and in slaughterhouses—by preventing them from being there in the first place.


All states also have wildlife protection laws, and some ban fishing and hunting in specific situations. Some states restrict trapping and interacting with threatened animals in order to keep populations from dwindling even more. Others have their own endangered species protections, which cover species who aren’t protected at the federal level.

Circuses and Traveling Wild-Animal Acts

Some states, counties, and cities also have restrictions on animal circuses and traveling wild-animal acts. In 2017, Illinois and New York became the first states to ban the use of elephants in entertainment. Indiana, Nevada, and Virginia have prohibited public interactions with certain species who could pose a safety threat. Below are more state and local restrictions.


  • California bans the use of all animals in circuses except domesticated dogs, cats, and horses.
  • Colorado bans the use of elephants, big cats, bears, and other animals in circuses and other traveling shows.
  • Hawaii bans the importation of wild or exotic animals for circuses.
  • Illinois bans the use of elephants in traveling acts.
  • Kentucky bans the use of endangered species in circuses and prohibits dangerous exotic-animal shows at county and state fairs.
  • New Jersey bans wild- and exotic-animal acts.
  • New York bans the use of elephants in traveling acts.

Counties and Cities

Several counties and cities ban the use of wild animals in private or public settings. Some restrictions only apply to specific venues, while others are more sweeping and cover all venues in certain categories.

  • Los Angeles (bans the use of wild animals at house parties), San Francisco, and West Hollywood, California
  • Bridgepoint and Stamford, Connecticut
  • Margate, Florida
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Portland, Maine
  • Gaithersburg and Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Amherst, Cambridge, Topsfield, and Wilmington, Massachusetts
  • Ferndale, Michigan
  • Missoula, Montana
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • New York City and Westchester County, New York
  • Asheville and Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Multnomah County, Oregon
  • Salt Lake County, Utah (bans wild- and exotic-animal shows at county facilities, a de facto ban on wild-animal circuses)
  • Madison (bans elephant acts at the Alliant Energy Center) and Dane County, Wisconsin

These are growing trends that we hope to see more states, counties, and cities follow. 😊


Even though these federal, state, and local laws exist, it’s obvious that they don’t go far enough to protect animals and often aren’t properly enforced. It’s up to us as animal advocates to fight for better ones that cover all animals and ensure their well-being. Learn how you can help get legislation passed as part of a grassroots campaign.

Text peta2 to 30933 for ways to help animals, tips on compassionate living, and more!

heart illustration

Terms for automated texts/calls from peta2: Text STOP to end, HELP for more info. Msg/data rates may apply. U.S. only.