The Animal Welfare Act and Birds
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2010
Jeleen Briscoe, VMD, DABVP (Avian)
Animal Care Program, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Riverdale, MD, USA


Veterinarians and veterinary health technicians employed by the Animal Care Program (AC) of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are located throughout the country serving as inspectors of wholesale dealers, breeders, transporters, and exhibitors of animals to ensure the health and welfare of the animals under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). In 2002, the passage of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act amended the AWA’s definition of animal to include rats of the genus Rattus, mice of the genus Mus, and birds other than those bred for use in research. Since then, the USDA has been working on regulations to implement this change in law. This talk provides a review of the history of the AWA and its enforcement, as well as an update on the process of changing the regulations to provide for the humane care, treatment, and handling of birds in AC regulated entities.

Background: The Act, the Definition of Animal, and the Regulations

The history of the Animal Welfare Act began in 1966 when Congress passed Public Law (PL) 89-544, the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act. This law was designed to regulate dealers of dogs and cats and oversee laboratories that perform research using dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, or nonhuman primates. The Act was amended in 1970 (PL 91-579), changing its name to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and giving the Secretary of Agriculture the ability to regulate other warm-blooded animals used in research, exhibition, or the wholesale pet trade. An amendment in 1976 (PL 94-279) provided for the prohibition of most animal fighting operations and for the regulation of commercial transport of animals. The Improved Standards for Laboratories Act (part of the 1985 Food Security Act, PL 91-198) enabled the Secretary of Agriculture to expand standards for laboratory animals. In 1990, the Food Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act included provisions for pet protection by adding regulations regarding random-source pets, i.e., dogs and cats that were obtained from shelters or people who did not breed or raise them. The Federation Aviation Administration reauthorization bill of 2000 required commercial air carriers to report to the Department of Transportation any incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of an animal in transit.

Under the original AWA from 1966, animal was defined to include dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits. In 1970, that definition was expanded to include any warm-blooded animal used (or intended for use) in research, exhibition, or as a pet. Horses not used for research and other farm animals intended for agricultural purposes (i.e., for fur, skins, or food) were excluded from coverage under the AWA. The USDA amended the definition of animal in 1971 to exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus. In 1989 that definition was further amended to exclude only rats and mice bred for use in research. Because of the way the exclusion was worded, it was interpreted by USDA that all birds would be excluded from coverage under the AWA. This interpretation remained until 2002 when, due to political pressure and a lawsuit filed by the Alternative Research and Development Foundation, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (PL 107-171) was passed. Also called The Farm Bill, this act specified that the exclusion of coverage under the AWA only apply to rats of the genus Rattus, mice of the genus Mus, and birds bred for research.

The USDA/APHIS Animal Care Program is tasked with creating and enforcing regulations implementing the AWA. These regulations are found in Title 9, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Parts 1–3 and require the licensing and inspection of dealers, exhibitors, and operations of animal auction sales. The first part contains definitions used in the regulations; the second part discusses administrative requirements for enforcement of the act, as well as the responsibilities of the regulated parties; and the third part specifies requirements and standards for the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals covered by the AWA. There are six subparts (A–F) within Part 3. Subparts A–E list standards for dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, nonhuman primates, and marine mammals. Subpart F covers other warm-blooded animals not listed in A–E.

The USDA/APHIS Animal Care Inspection Process

Any facility that houses animals covered under the AWA is required to be licensed or registered with APHIS and is also subject to unannounced inspections. Inspectors can either be veterinarians, called Veterinary Medical Officers; or animal health technicians, called Animal Care Inspectors; and are trained to evaluate facilities thoroughly for noncompliance in areas affecting the welfare of the animals housed therein. Main aspects of the inspections include the following: housing, ventilation, lighting, interior surfaces, primary enclosures, sanitation, pest control, feeding and watering, outdoor shelter, compatibility (e.g., cage mates, shelter from view of other animals to reduce stress, access of unweaned animals to their mothers), veterinary care, record-keeping, handling, and transportation. The owner of the facility typically accompanies the inspector, and any violations are discussed, along with a deadline to correct any areas that are in noncompliance. If this deadline is not met, legal action may be taken, including confiscation and rehousing of the affected animals.

Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: The USDA Solicits Input from Avian Stakeholders

In 2004, the USDA released an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) and request for comments on the creation of regulations that would cover birds other than those bred for use in research. This would include all birds “sold as pets at the wholesale level;  transported in commerce; or used in exhibition, research, teaching, testing, or experimentation purposes.” In the ANPR, the USDA acknowledged that there are over 9000 species of birds, representing over 30 orders, with many unique husbandry requirements. Because of this, the general standards as they were currently written in subpart F of Part 3 of the regulations would be insufficient to provide for the humane handling, care, and treatment of birds. Input was solicited on standards for birds under subpart F, as well as changes required to Part 2 specific to birds. The advanced notice was very specific on the information needed based on what was already listed in Subpart 3 for mammals:

  • Potential numbers and sizes of entities that would be covered under the change in regulations, as well as the types and numbers of different species found in these entities.
  • Facilities and operations, including caging and construction, space external to housing, waste disposal, heating, ventilation, lighting, and substrate for both indoor and outdoor facilities.
  • Animal health and husbandry, including classification and identification of animals, diet, sanitation, separation from stressors, and housing with compatible animals.
  • Transportation, including specifications for enclosures and carriers; terminal facilities; and feeding, water, and care of animals in transit. Under §2.130 are minimum age requirements for commercial transport of dogs and cats, and the advanced notice requested input on whether there should be similar provisions for birds.
  • Types of biosafety precautions inspectors should take at avian facilities, both for their own safety as well as the safety of the birds.

Comment was also solicited regarding changes in exemptions for certain facilities. Under §2.1 and §2.25 of the regulations, licensing and registration is required for all dealers, operators of auction sales, and carriers and intermediate handlers other than retail pet stores selling non-dangerous animals intended as companions. Thus, the USDA requested input on whether there were specific avian entities that should be similarly exempted. Given all these potential changes, information was also solicited on the potential financial impact the proposed rule would have on the industry.

There were over 7,400 comments submitted in response to the advance notice, representing input from a wide range of representatives from entities working with birds including breeders, zoos and aquaria, research laboratories, dealers, animal welfare organizations, trade associations, and private citizens. These comments were evaluated and incorporated into the proposed regulations, often referred to as the Bird Reg.

The Bird Reg: What’s Next?

Currently the Bird Reg is undergoing internal review, after which it will be released to the public, along with solicitation for comments on these changes. Those changes will be reviewed and incorporated into the final rule which will again undergo internal review. Once that process is complete, a final rulemaking will be published. The ultimate product will rely on scientific research wherever possible and incorporate input from a broad range of experts in the field to provide captive birds with optimized humane care, treatment, and handling under the AWA.

Literature Cited

All materials used in this manuscript are available online at the website for the Animal Care program of the USDA/APHIS ( or upon request.


Speaker Information
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Jeleen Briscoe, VMD, DABVP (Avian)
Animal Care Program
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
United States Department of Agriculture
Riverdale, MD, USA

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