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What Are the Laws That Protect Animals and Their Rights?

May 31, 2022

There are few animals that protect animals from cruelty, and even fewer for farmed animals like cows, chickens, and pigs.

Puppies and piglets have a lot in common—both are intelligent, loving, playful, and full of personality—yet there is often a huge contrast between the ways that these animals are viewed and treated by humans. Many of us were brought up thinking that dogs are for playing with but pigs are for eating. Despite making no logical or ethical sense, this distinction between friends and food is reflected in anti-cruelty laws, which generally leave farmed animals with next to no legal protection. 

How Many Laws Protect Animal Rights?

There are no laws in the U.S. that recognize animals as legal persons who have rights. Laws that protect animals instead focus on animal welfare, which is rooted in the idea that animals should be killed for food, experimented on in labs, and used for other human purposes. 

Federal Animal Protection Laws 

Several federal laws exist to safeguard the welfare of animals and conserve what are considered to be ecologically important wildlife at the species level, but none of them offer any protection to animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs. 

As we will see below, cows, pigs, and sheep are covered by the 28 Hour Law during transportation and then by the Humane Slaughter Act once inside the slaughterhouse. Chickens, who make up the overwhelming majority of individual land animals farmed for food, have no federal protection at all. 

Horse Protection Act

The Horse Protection Act makes it illegal to transport, show, or sell a horse who has been sored. Soring is the practice of deliberately making a horse’s legs or hooves painful so that they will jump higher and run faster in shows. This often involves applying chemical irritants to a horse’s legs or cutting too far into a horse’s hoof.  

The “28 Hour Law”

In theory, under the 28 Hour Law, farmed animals cannot be transported for more than 28 hours at a time without being granted a minimum of five hours off the vehicle to eat, drink, and rest. However, there are several cases in which this does not apply. 

The 28 Hour Law only covers animals who are transported by land and who do not have the chance to eat, drink, and rest on the journey. It also does not cover poultry. Beyond that, the time limit can be extended to 36 hours if a written request has been made or, in the case of sheep, if the journey ends at night. In addition, animals can be kept in transit for more than 28 hours without a break if it isn’t possible to unload them because of unavoidable circumstances. 

According to a report by the Animal Welfare Institute, the 28-hour limit is “rarely enforced.” Even when the law is complied with, 28 hours is a long time to stand nose to tail in an overcrowded truck with no access to food or water, especially in freezing or sweltering temperatures. 

The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act

The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act bans the production, distribution, marketing, sale, and exchange of animal crush videos. Under this legislation, an animal crush video is an obscene image, video, or recording of any form that shows a person deliberately crushing, suffocating, burning, or otherwise physically harming a nonhuman animal. (The act does not apply to videos and images of animal slaughter or other standard farming practices.)

The Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act requires that some nonhuman animals used for commercial purposes (e.g. pet stores, zoos) be given a basic level of care. However, it excludes farmed animals raised and killed for food in the U.S.—roughly 10 billion individuals per year. Fish, reptiles and amphibians, invertebrates, animals used in laboratory settings, horses who aren’t used in laboratories, and most wild animals are also left unprotected by the act. 

The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act protects animals who are listed as endangered or threatened from being taken from the wild, owned, sold, or transported, with some exceptions. In some instances it also protects the areas where these animals live from being damaged by human activity. 

The Humane Slaughter Act

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires that pigs, cattle, sheep, and certain other animals at slaughter facilities be quickly and effectively stunned (gassed, electrocuted, or shot) prior to being killed, except in the case of ritual or religious slaughter. Aside from the obvious problem that there is no “humane” way to take a healthy animal’s life, the act also does not offer any protection to chickens and fish and therefore excludes the bulk of individual animals who are slaughtered. 

The Lacey Act

The Lacey Act makes it illegal to trade species that have been unlawfully obtained from the wild and was first introduced in 1900, largely to prevent the sale of poached game across state lines, though it now addresses many forms of wildlife-related crime. The law, which applies to plants as well as to animals, also exists to prevent the introduction of non-native wildlife species that have the potential to cause damage to U.S. land and native animals. 

The PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) Act

The PACT Act adds to the legislation on animal crush videos, making the violence itself illegal in addition to the production and distribution of the videos. 

The Shark Conservation Act

Under the Shark Conservation Act, sharks in the U.S., with the exception of dogfish sharks, can only be brought to shore if their fins remain “naturally attached” to their bodies. This helps to prevent the banned practice of shark finning, which usually involves cutting off a shark’s fins at sea and throwing the mutilated shark back into the water to suffer a slow, painful death. 

Animal Laws by State

Every state has laws that ban animal cruelty, but what is considered to be an act of cruelty differs across the country, as does the legal definition of an animal. In many cases, state animal protection laws make it illegal to deliberately injure, torture, or take the life of some animals unless as part of normal farming operations. This essentially means that factory farms can legally use inhumane practices that cause immense pain and distress to animals as long as the practices are routine and widespread within the industry. 


In Oklahoma statutes, all nonhuman animals are included in the definition of an “animal.” But although farmed animals are at least given minimal legal protections, the law is still heavily biased toward the agricultural corporations that harm them. Local governments in Oklahoma are banned from granting farmed animals any more legal protection than is provided by state law. 

New Jersey

In New Jersey statutes, “animal” also seems to refer to all nonhuman animals.  However, standard farming practices, along with several other activities, are exempt from anti-cruelty regulations. A farmer who harms an animal in a way that is not considered acceptable also cannot be prosecuted for their first minor offense without first having been given a written warning. 

What Animals Are Protected by Law?

Many animals are protected by law, but what these legal protections look like varies widely between groups of animals. Below, we take a look at how the law protects companion animals, farmed animals, and wildlife. 

Companion Animals 

Widely regarded as friends and family members rather than food, companion cats and dogs are generally far better protected by law than animals we use for other purposes. It is illegal in many parts of the U.S. to leave a dog trapped inside a car in hot weather. And to help address the problem of puppy mills, California, Maryland, and numerous cities and counties across the country have banned the sale of commercially bred companion cats, dogs, and rabbits in pet stores.

Farmed Animals 

Recent years have seen significant progress in farmed animal protection laws, such as a number of states banning or limiting the use of some of the most intensive forms of confinment such as gestation crates and battery cages. However, there is still a very long way to go before so-called “food” animals finally get the legal protections they deserve. Even when not kept in cages, factory-farmed animals are denied basic freedoms and routinely subject to acts that would be unlawful to perform on a companion cat or dog, such as castration without anesthesia

Federal and state laws do not only fall short of protecting farmed animals, they actively serve the interests of industrial animal agriculture. Recent years have seen some states go so far as to pass anti-whistleblower or “ag-gag” laws, which criminalize the work of undercover investigators in order to prevent the harsh realities of factory farming from being made known to the public. 

Only the most indefensible acts of cruelty toward farmed animals, for instance attacking them with a pitchfork or kicking an individual who is too sick or injured to move, are widely considered illegal. Even in these cases, justice often isn’t served. Given that violence toward animals generally happens behind closed doors, proving that a crime has been committed is anything but easy, and prosecutors aren’t always interested in taking on the case. And when an act of cruelty does result in prosecution, the blame often lands on individual workers, who are often unfairly treated themselves, rather than those in charge of the factory farm.  


Legal protection for wildlife is mixed. While many ecologically important species and their habitats are protected from harm for conservation purposes, other wild animals are routinely killed for food or for sport. Fishing and hunting are commonly exempt from anti-cruelty laws, as is the killing of so-called “pest” species, which include foxes, coyotes, wolves, rabbits, and many other species. 

How Can We Protect Animals?

One of the most effective ways we can protect animals is with our food choices. By swapping meat, dairy, fish, and eggs for plant-based foods, we can gradually reduce the number of animals who are bred to be killed for food. Other actions you can take include talking to your friends, family, and co-workers, writing to your local representatives, supporting animal rights campaigns, supporting organizations working to end factory farming, and volunteering at an animal sanctuary. 

Animal Cruelty

Farmed animals need more regulations to protect them from acts of cruelty. Certain farming practices that cause suffering should not be exempt from anti-cruelty laws simply because they are routine. Farmed animals experience pain and can suffer the same as the cats and dogs we welcome into our families and they deserve the same level of protection.


Farmed fish, chickens, pigs, and cows are among the animals most in need of legal protection, yet the few laws that do exist to protect these individuals are woefully lacking and poorly enforced. Anti-cruelty legislation currently does nothing to address factory farming, one of the leading causes of animal suffering on the planet.