USDA Animal Care, a unit within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, upholds and enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). This federal law and its associated regulations set the standards for humane care and treatment for certain animals that are exhibited to the public, bred for commercial sale, used in medical research, or transported commercially. Facilities using regulated animals for regulated purposes must provide their animals with adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care, and they must protect their animals from extreme weather and temperatures.
Highly-trained USDA inspectors located throughout the United States conduct routine, unannounced inspections of all facilities licensed or registered under the AWA to make sure these facilities are adhering to the standards set forth in the federal regulations. Inspectors are classified as veterinary medical officers (VMOs) or Animal Care inspectors (ACIs). All VMOs have graduated from a veterinary medical college, and many have been private-practice veterinarians prior to joining USDA Animal Care. ACIs have education in the biological sciences and/or extensive experience in the care and handling of animals. USDA Animal Care also employs veterinarians who specialize in the care of particular animal species as well as those with a specific area of animal expertise such as research or transportation.
Inspectors use the AWA standards and regulations as the baseline by which they determine the level of care being provided. If a facility is meeting the federal standards, USDA knows that the animals there are receiving humane care and treatment. Conversely, when inspectors cite facilities for items that are not in compliance with the federal standards, USDA Animal Care holds those facilities responsible for properly addressing and correcting those items within a set timeframe. If the noncompliance is not corrected, or if it is of a serious enough nature, USDA has the option to pursue appropriate regulatory compliance and enforcement actions.
The AWA, which became law in 1966, does not cover every type of animal used in every type of activity. The following animals are not covered: farm animals used for food or fiber (fur, hide, etc.); coldblooded species (amphibians and reptiles); horses not used for research purposes; fish; invertebrates (crustaceans, insects, etc.); or rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus that are bred for use in research. Birds are covered under the AWA but the regulatory standards have not yet been established.