Animal Law Career Guide


Animal law is one of the nation’s fastest growing fields of study and practice. It plays an ever-increasing role in today’s society and influences our interactions with all animals.
The field is gaining respect and legitimacy, as evidenced by increased media attention; the development of animal law curricula and student organizations; the establishment of state and local bar committee sections focused on animal law; the enactment of new and stronger city, state, and federal animal welfare legislation; and the increase in animal law cases setting positive precedents for animals.
Each year, a growing number of students attend law schools hoping to pursue a career in, or related to, animal law. Unfortunately, the supply of information, administrative support, resources, and job opportunities have not kept pace with this student interest.
We hope this Career Guide will provide students and career guidance counselors with helpful information about the field of animal law. Since animal law is not a traditional area of law, there are not established career paths. Everyone who works in animal law–full-time, part-time, through pro bono efforts, or a combination–as professors, authors, lobbyists, policy analysts, attorneys, paralegals, board members, or staff members of nonprofits have forged their own path into the field. It may take some creativity, time, and perseverance, but the animals need students to follow their hearts and find individual ways to contribute to advancing legal protections for animals.

Overview of Animal Law

Animal law encompasses all interactions with animals within the context of traditional areas of law. The subjects of animal laws include companion animals, wildlife, captive animals, and animals used for entertainment, in research, and for food and food production. Animal laws are found on local, state, national, and international levels. The following paragraphs briefly explain the areas of law and animal issues that comprise the field of animal law.


Many animal lawyers work in the administrative law arena, commenting on or challenging agency rules and regulations on the local, state, and federal level. On the local level, attorneys may assist guardians to challenge “dangerous dog” classifications or represent them in “doggie death row” cases. Federally, administrative actions include Freedom of Information requests (FOIA), challenges to agency decisions under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and federal statutes such as the Endangered Species Act, Animal Welfare Act, or Marine Mammal Protection Act.


One of the largest hurdles in animal law today is the issue of standing. Most laws were written to protect people or their property, and the aggrieved party has the ability to raise these wrongs within the legal system. With animal issues, the wronged party—an animal or animals—are not able to bring legal actions on their own behalf. Unfortunately, people do not have the ability to raise these issues in court simply because we know the laws are not being followed (such as “citizen suit provisions” found in environmental law).

Other constitutional issues arise under the First Amendment’s protections of free speech (including protests and hunter harassment) and freedom of religion (including animals used for sacrifice, the right to vegetarian or vegan food for prisoners, or discrimination in the workplace for vegan or vegetarian beliefs). Fourth Amendment issues arise in the taking of animals, most commonly when police shoot companion animals.


One of the most common intersections between animal law and criminal law is through state animal anti cruelty statutes. In 1684 Massachusetts passed the first anti cruelty statute, which regulated the transportation of livestock. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, most of anti cruelty statutes focused on farm animals (as an economic commodity) and were passed to protect the morality of people more than to protect animals from cruelty. Now every state has an anti cruelty statute, and almost half of those include felony provisions for certain egregious acts. Attitudes have shifted somewhat and anti cruelty statutes now recognize the need to protect animals from abuse, neglect, and suffering; however, not all animals are afforded these protections.

Typical anti cruelty statutes protect companion animals, and most exclude hunting, trapping, research, entertainment, and farming practices. So, while anti cruelty statutes are important and worthwhile for many companion animals, the statutes are not nearly as inclusive as they must be to protect the majority of animals or to alleviate the most suffering for animals. Furthermore, enforcement of anti cruelty statutes is difficult in areas where district attorneys do not prioritize animal issues. As with all criminal statutes, the state has prosecutorial discretion, and many times, animal abuse and neglect cases go unnoticed or are not taken seriously within the legal system.

Criminal attorneys also defend animal advocates who have been charged with crimes in attempts to advance animals interests. Criminal laws relating to animals are enforced by police and sheriff departments, animal control/services officers, humane investigators, and wildlife special agents.


The Americans with Disabilities Act governs the ability of service animals to enter public areas where animals are not normally allowed (such as restaurants, stores, and airplanes), governs the ability of service animals to live in apartments or condominium buildings where animals are normally not welcomed, and contains provisions as to what qualifies as a service animal. Many states also have more extreme penalties for harm caused to service animals.


Environmental laws protect wild animals through statutes such as the Endangered Species Act, Wild Horses and Burros Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Water Act. International treaties and organizations such as CITES, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the International Whaling Commission afford other protections. Although animals are the subject of many environmental laws, the philosophies of the two areas of law differ. While environmental laws tend to look at the species as a whole, animal law tends to look at individuals. Domesticated animals also implicate environmental law, as the waste and byproducts resulting from the vast number of animals we use as a society directly impacts the air, soil, and water.


Great progress has been in the area of pet trusts. Many people now include provisions in their wills to provide for the care of their companion animals, and more states are passing pet trust acts which provide for their enforcement.


While there is yet to be widespread support, more arrangements involving family pets are appearing in prenuptial agreements and divorce settlements. Many states would allow people to include provisions such as visitation rights, but very few judges have been willing to step in to enforce these agreements.


With the advent of new technology comes new animals, new ways to create animals, and more uses for animals. There are many interesting legal (and, of course, moral) questions that arise between the intersection of animals and intellectual property.


Many animals are harmed by medications, toys, pesticides, household cleaners, and other products. Attorneys may file class action suits or bring product liability actions against manufacturers, sellers, or distributors of these harmful products.


Animals are property under the law—they are commodities. This categorization allows people to buy and sell animals, to use them for a variety of purposes, to kill them “humanely,” and to hold them captive. Many people within the animal advocacy movement feel the only way to truly protect animals from cruelty is to abolish their status as property. Others believe that animals may gain certain rights and protections through development of the common law without having to move away from a property status. The property discussion raises many interesting legal, economic, and social issues. Many tort law cases are challenging the idea of animals as property, and are asking courts to recognize that animals are sentient beings and to advance the laws regarding emotional distress and loss of companionship.


Animal law is growing most rapidly in the tort law context. Many people are bringing cases to recover emotional distress or loss of companionship damages for the harm or death of a companion animal. While the strongest language in support of these actions is found in dicta, many judges are taking steps forward and recognizing that animals are worth more than their market value (the cost to “replace” an animal with another) and that through their loss, people have lost a relationship. State legislatures are also recognizing this relationship and have passed statues allowing for emotional distress damages for the loss of a companion animal. Other growing developments in tort law include: nuisance claims, ownership disputes, negligent confinement actions, veterinary malpractice, and other wrongful death actions.


Every year, millions of animals are used for research, testing, and education. Conservative estimates place animals used in research at well over 100 million. However, no one knows how many animals are used in the United States today because the Animal Welfare Act, the legislation requiring the counting of animals in laboratories, excludes mice and rats, indisputably the animal most used in the industry. At least 100 million mice are estimated to be used in U.S. laboratories alone. Guinea pigs, mice, rats, rabbits, fish, and dogs are the most often used, along with cats, primates, pigs, sheep, ferrets, and birds. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the animals used in laboratories are the subjects of safety testing of chemicals and consumer products. Just as state anti cruelty statutes exclude other practices that use animals, research practices are also excluded.


The vast majority of animals killed each year are animals used for food or food production, reaching a staggering 10 billion animals. Many state anti cruelty statutes exempt “customary farming practices,” as determined by the industry, including gestation crates, castration, branding, debeaking, and other painful practices.

The federal regulation of slaughter is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HSA) which requires that “in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals [be] rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” The HSA has been interpreted to exclude poultry, who make up over 92% of the animals slaughtered in the U.S. each year.

The only other federal regulation involving farmed animals is the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, passed in 1877, requiring animals to rest and be fed and watered every twenty-eight hours. This statute only applies to animals transported by trains, excluding the majority of animals who are now transported by trucks.


Animals are abused and exploited in a variety of forms of “entertainment” including zoos, marine parks, horse and greyhound race tracks, circuses, roadside zoos, aquariums, movie sets and televisions, dogfighting and cockfighting, displays in shopping malls and restaurants, and canned hunts.

In addition to regulating the care of animals used for research, the Animal Welfare Act also requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, transported commercially, or publicly exhibited. The AWA prohibits staged dogfights, bear or raccoon baiting, and similar animal fighting ventures. Retail pet shops are not covered under the Act unless the shop sells exotic or zoo animals, or sells animals to regulated businesses.

This is an excerpt from the guide provided by the National Center for Animal Law. The National Center for Animal Law supports students interested in animal law by developing animal law curriculum, hosting trainings and events, providing financial support, and developing resources and programs.

Comments are closed.