Companion Animals

Animals are irreplaceable members of the family

Companion animals are those animals who share our homes and lives. Because we consider these animals to be family, because they are family, companion animals enjoy more legal protections than other animals.

Legally, the category is often limited to dogs and cats, but may also include birds, horses, and other animals as well.

Most companion animal protection legislation happens at the state level. Additionally, some cities and counties pass ordinances to protect companion animals. There are few federal protections for companion animals.

It’s critically important to advocate for better animal protection laws with lawmakers in all government bodies. Each has the power to help.

68% of American households include a companion animal (84.6 million homes)

Federal Companion Animal Protection Laws

The Animal Welfare Act is the chief federal law concerning companion animals. Signed into law in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the primary federal animal protection law. The AWA mainly involves animals kept at zoos and used in laboratories, but includes animals who are commercially bred and sold like those in puppy mills.

The AWA directs the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set minimum standards regarding these animals’ “handling, care, treatment, and transportation.” Dog fighting is also prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act, so long as the activity in some way crosses state lines.

The AWA itself, as well as its enforcement by the Department of Agriculture, are frequently criticized for allowing puppy mill operators’ inhumane practices to go unchecked.

State And Local Animal Protection Laws

Because there are so many state laws involving companion animal protection, this won’t be a detailed guide, but an overview of the types of laws you’ll generally find at the state level. We recommend you check out the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s annual Rankings Report on the best and worst states for animal protection laws for more in-depth information.

Most companion animal protection laws are enacted and enforced at the state level. And state animal protection laws are primarily concerned with companion animals.

Each state has laws governing some aspects of the “hands-on” care of animals. Here are some examples:

  • Laws regulating how long animal shelters must “hold” stray animals before they can be adopted or euthanized.
  • Laws about how frequently dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies.
  • States often also have some regulations concerning commercial breeding of companion animals.

Other companion animal protection laws are also gaining in popularity, at the state level. Examples include:

  • “Hot car laws” that criminalize leaving an animal in a vehicle in extreme weather.
    • Some hot car laws also allow these animals to be rescued from vehicles in certain circumstances and make the rescuer immune from civil or criminal liability.
  • Anti-tethering laws that limit how long pets can be tied up or chained outside, especially in extreme weather.
  • More than half of states have laws allowing pets to be included in domestic violence protective orders.

California is at the forefront of some other statewide companion animal protection measures. In 2017, California became the first state to pass a statewide “retail pet sale ban.” Under this law, retail establishments like pet stores may only sell cats, dogs and rabbits coming from shelters and rescue groups — and not from commercial breeders. Maryland passed its own statewide retail pet sale ban in 2018, becoming the second state with this type of law.

Many other companion animal protection measures are enacted and enforced at the local level. Examples include:

  • Hundreds of cities and counties have retail pet sale bans like California’s and Maryland’s.
  • In states without anti-tethering laws, cities and counties often pass their own such laws.
  • Many cities have now banned declawing cats.

While state and federal laws would offer more protection to more animals, these local laws are very important. They not only protect the companion animals in that area – but can also act as a bellwether for more expansive protections to come.

It is not infrequent for new companion animal protection measures to begin at the city or county level, and then as the public increasingly demands it, to be taken up by the state legislators.

There are felony provisions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for intentionally killing a dog or cat.

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