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Animal Welfare Act

Multi-colored collection of animals used for the Animal Welfare Act

USDA Animal Care, a unit within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, administers the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). This federal law establishes requirements concerning the transportation, sale, and handling of certain animals and includes restrictions on the importation of live dogs for purposes of resale, prohibitions on animal fighting ventures, and provisions intended to prevent the theft of personal pets.


Regulations established under the AWA set standards for the humane care and treatment for certain animals that are exhibited to the public, sold for use as pets, used in 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. The regulations also establish specific requirements that must be met prior to the importation of dogs for resale purposes.

Highly-trained USDA inspectors located throughout the United States conduct routine, unannounced inspections of all facilities licensed or registered under the AWA to assess these facilities compliance with AWA. 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 assess a facility’s level of care provided to animals. If a facility is meeting the federal standards, USDA knows the animals there are receiving humane care and treatment. Conversely, when inspectors identify 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 birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus that are bred for use in research. Birds (other than those bred for research) are covered under the AWA but the regulatory standards have not yet been established.

Animal Care (AC) personnel perform two major types of inspections: pre-licensing inspections and unannounced compliance inspections. In addition to routine inspections, AC inspectors follow up on complaints from the public regarding regulated facilities, including reports that facilities are conducting regulated activity without an Animal Welfare Act license or registration.

Learn More about Inspections

Generally, Animal Care (AC) ensures regulatory compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) primarily through the use of inspections. Our inspectors conduct unannounced visits to licensed or registered facilities where they review all areas of care and treatment covered under the law.

In some circumstances where an individual and/or business is found to not be in compliance with the AWA, APHIS may take action in addition to inspections to promote compliance, including issuing a Letter of Information or an Official Warning Letter. A Letter of Information is an informal warning letter documenting that AWA noncompliance was found and advising an individual and/or business that more stringent action may be taken if they remain noncompliant. An Official Warning Letter is an official warning of an alleged violation of the AWA. It provides notice to an individual and/or business that the Agency may seek a civil or criminal penalty if noncompliance is found in the future.

APHIS' Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES) personnel investigate alleged violations when licensees or registrants have not taken corrective measures to come into compliance with the AWA, individuals and/or businesses are conducting regulated activity without a license or without being registered with USDA, or the noncompliance presents (or presented) a direct risk to the health and well-being of the animals involved. IES investigations may lead to the issuance of a regulatory compliance or enforcement action. For more information on the investigative and enforcement process, as well as on what actions may be taken to enforce the AWA, please visit IES’ website.

In order to keep pace with the modern marketplace and to ensure that animals sold via the Internet or other non-traditional methods receive humane care and treatment, USDA changed the Animal Welfare Act regulations by revising its definition of retail pet store.. Materials are posted on this webpage in an effort to provide all interested parties with pertinent information. We encourage you to please read through these materials in order to: 1) gain a better understanding of this regulation change; 2) learn the reasons that prompted the change; and 3) see if you need a USDA license or if you are exempt from licensing.

Importing dogs into the United States for resale, whether through commercial sale or adoption, is now covered under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).  Congress added this section to the AWA in 2008 and APHIS published specific regulations in 2014.

Learn more about Importing Dogs for Commercial Sale or Research

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