What Is Animal Law?

An overview of one of the more dynamic areas of the legal field

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 3, 2023

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Animals play essential roles in various aspects of personal and professional lives. There are many issues and questions that make up the large and varying body of animal law. Unlike other topics in the legal system, the field of animal law brings together many areas of the law, from rules concerning keeping pets in domestic residences and raising animals for food to laws concerning animal cruelty, animal attack injuries, and animals used for entertainment.

If you have any questions about your rights and responsibilities concerning an issue of animal law, or if you need information about the rights and protections available to animals, it is vital to seek advice from an animal law attorney.

Animal Law – What You Need to Know

  • Animal law is a broad field that brings together statutes and case law from many different traditional areas of American law as they relate to non-human animals, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).
  • Legal issues involving animals can be generally classified depending upon whether those issues involve animals as pets, animals as food products, animals as research subjects, and animals in relation to environmental and wildlife protection.
  • Within each of those broad categories, many different areas of American law intersect.
  • Commonly, animal law cases involve a person filing a lawsuit who has been injured in some capacity.

Legal Areas Involving Animal Law Issues

Various areas of the law are invoked in animal law matters. The following are some of the most common areas of the law in which an animal law issue is likely to arise. Depending upon the issue and the party seeking to file a claim, it will be essential to determine what type of legal area is at issue in the case and whether the party who wants to file a lawsuit has standing to sue.

  • Family law: Pet custody issues can arise under family law in many different states, especially in a marital separation or divorce.
  • Civil rights law: Disability protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide protections to individuals with service animals.
  • Trusts and estates law: Estate planning for many people involves creating a trust for a beloved family pet or an animal rights or advocacy organization.
  • Personal injury and tort law: Veterinary malpractice claims and dog bite cases fall under state tort laws.
  • Landlord-tenant law: Rights to have animals in residence and issues concerning animal welfare in residential units can fall under state-specific landlord-tenant laws.
  • Consumer protection law: Legal issues when purchasing animals as pets and laws designed to protect consumers of animal food products are part of consumer protection laws. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for various food and safety issues pertaining to animal products.
  • Environmental law: Conservation, hunting, and pollution matters affecting wild animals arise under various environmental laws.
  • Entertainment law: Various types of entertainment venues, such as major tourist sites like Sea World or Busch Gardens, or local visitor spaces such as small zoos and animal enclosures, may be governed by certain entertainment laws pertaining to animal welfare.
  • International law: International laws might apply when animals are imported as exotic companion animals or when people bring exotic animal products into the U.S.

Standing to Sue for Animals

Many types of animal law cases are brought by individuals who have suffered some personal legal harm. Examples include cases where a veterinarian’s malpractice resulted in animal abuse or in cases where a divorce has resulted in a contentious pet custody battle.

But what happens in circumstances where someone who has not personally been harmed wants to bring a case? For example, what if an animal welfare advocate recognizes that an animal needs protection? When a person wants to sue on behalf of an animal, working with an animal law attorney is critical. An attorney can educate you on animal protection laws and be able to determine who is likely to have standing to sue on behalf of the animal.

What is “standing” to sue? According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute (LII), standing, also known as locus standi, is the legal term that refers to the “capacity of a party to bring suit in court.” Whether or not a party has standing will depend upon the specific state or federal law under which that party wants to file a lawsuit. State statutes typically require that the party filing the lawsuit has suffered legal harm to have standing, although there are some exceptions.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992) specifically addressed standing in the context of environmental and animal advocacy organizations’ ability to have standing to sue. In Lujan, the organization Defenders of Wildlife wanted to bring a claim related to the Endangered Species Act. Still, the federal government argued that the organization did not have standing to sue. The Supreme Court established a three-part test for determining whether a party has standing. That three-part test includes the following elements:

  • The plaintiff must show an “injury in fact,” which the Court defined as “a concrete and particularized, actual or imminent invasion of a legally protected interest”
  • The plaintiff must show a “causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of”
  • The plaintiff’s injury must be of a nature that a favorable court decision would redress it

Federal Statutes Providing Animal Law Protections

There are a wide range of federal statutes under which an animal law issue can arise, including but not limited to the following:

  • Agriculture Appropriations Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Animal Welfare Act
  • Captive Wildlife Safety Act
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Fair Housing Act
  • Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act
  • Lacey Act
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972
  • Migratory Bird Conservation Act
  • Pacific Salmon Treaty Act of 1985
  • Humane Methods of Slaughter Act

Specific state laws and local government ordinances may also protect individuals with animals, as well as the animals in many circumstances. While federal statutes provide many protections for animals and people—and also govern how people can interact with animals in various capacities—many kinds of animal law claims will arise under state law, such as family law cases and personal injury or professional malpractice lawsuits.

Role of Animal Law Attorneys

What do animal law attorneys do? Animal lawyers can be responsible for handling many different kinds of legal issues, from those affecting pet owners to those involving issues of animal advocacy in cases that concern illegal trafficking, veterinary malpractice, animal abuse, animal control, and animal cruelty laws. Accordingly, animal lawyers must have a broad knowledge of various areas of the law pertaining to animals and animal rights.

Some animal law attorneys work in private practice and take cases from individuals who need to file a claim against a negligent veterinarian, for example, or to defend a pet owner against allegations of a dog attack.

Other animal lawyers work as animal advocates for prominent animal rights organizations, such as the ALDF, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the American Humane Society, or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Animal lawyers can also work as prosecutors as, lobbyists, and policymakers.

Common Questions About Animal Law

The following are questions you may consider discussing with your animal law attorney:

  • What legal issues are involved in my animal law case?
  • Do I have standing to bring the type of animal law claim I want to make?
  • How much time do I have to file this particular type of animal lawsuit?
  • Should my claim be filed under state or federal law?
  • What are the potential remedies if I win this animal law claim?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices animal law.

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