There is sometimes confusion about how US law protects rats, mice and non-mammalian vertebrates such as birds and fish. Much of this confusion is rooted in the fact that the US Animal Welfare Act (AWA) explicitly excludes purpose-bred rodents (rats of the genus Rattus rattus, mice of the genus Mus mus), as well as birds that were specifically bred for research. Research with these purpose-bred rats and mice likely comprises the overwhelming majority of vertebrate animals in research in the US, but it is not overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Sometimes this fact is used mistakenly (or perhaps purposely?) to suggest that all species not covered by the Animal Welfare Act are not protected by any federal laws.
Claims that research with non-AWA-covered species is not subject to care standards, external oversight, and public transparency are demonstrably untrue.
This post aims to address these misconceptions by looking at when and how rats, mice, and birds in research are covered by federal laws.
Image from Understanding Animal Research
In the US, both the USDA, through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), through the Public Health Service (PHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), are responsible for the oversight animal research. The table below provides a broad overview of the federal regulation and oversight agencies for different species and types of research.
Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and USDA.
Overview of animal research regulation in the US. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) states that covered species are defined as: “with certain exceptions, any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary [of Agriculture] may determine is being used, or is intended for use for research” (7 U.S.C. 2132(g) The 2002 Farm Bill amended this definition to exclude purpose-bred rats, mice, and birds from the provisions of the AWA. Note that certain types of research with animals and most animal testing are also subject to regulation and oversight by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The USDA is charged with enforcement of the AWA. The AWA applies to research with a range of species that includes: “with certain exceptions, any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary [of Agriculture] may determine is being used, or is intended for use for research” (7 U.S.C. 2132(g), referred to here as “USDA-covered species.” Institutions that engage in research with covered species must be registered with the USDA. The AWA also applies to zoos, entertainment facilities, breeders, and other facilities that engage covered species in activities that involve public contact. All such facilities must be licensed by the USDA and research may also be conducted in facilities licensed for non-research purposes.
An amendment to the 2002 Farm Bill specifically excluded from AWA oversight rats of the genus Rattus rattus, mice of the genus Mus mus, and birds specifically bred for research. Thus, research with these rats, mice, and birds, which likely comprises the overwhelming majority of vertebrate animals in research in the US, is not overseen by the USDA.
Does that mean rats, mice, and birds are not covered by federal animal welfare laws?
It depends on the funding! In fact, many rats, mice, and birds bred for research are covered by federal law.
Why? Because, for federally-funded research, another federal regulation specifies the conditions for animal care, animal research, external oversight, and associated public transparency via a second federal agency. This includes, for example, university research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or other federal agencies.
PHS and OLAW. The Health Research Extension Act (HREA; 1985) provides the statutory authority for the PHS Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy), which applies to all PHS-funded research with live vertebrate animals. In brief, such research must follow the National Research Council’s Guide for the Care and Use of Animals in Research (The Guide) (NRC, 2011). Each institution receiving PHS funding for research with vertebrate animals is required to have an Assurance of Compliance (Assurance) with OLAW. The Assurance describes policies and procedures adopted by the institution in order to comply with PHS Policy.
The NIH website provides extensive information about PHS policy and OLAW.
Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Certain types of research with animals and most animal testing are also subject to oversight and regulation by the US FDA.
Part of the federal regulation governing animal research also requires that each institution engaged in research has a mechanism for ethical consideration, approval, oversight and monitoring of animal care and research. Thus, there are also oversight bodies at each institution that are charged with the approval, monitoring, and reporting of activities with animals.
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC). Animal research oversight at the institutional level is entrusted to an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee or “IACUC.” The responsibilities of the IACUC are spelled out in the AWA regulations and the PHS policy. Read more about IACUC here: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/tutorial/iacuc.htm
What about rats, mice, and birds that are not in federally-funded research?
While privately-funded research is not subject to the AWA or PHS Policy, there are other mechanisms that are used to ensure standards of animal care and research review, such as voluntary accreditation of the institutions’ animal care program. Such research may also fall under FDA oversight and, as such, be required to follow PHS Policy.
Private accreditation. An institution may choose to seek and maintain voluntary accreditation by a private agency, AAALAC, International (AAALAC). In the US, AAALAC accreditation depends on demonstrating compliance with the The Guide; thus, institutions that are not overseen by APHIS or OLAW may choose to be accredited and adopt the same standards for the care and treatment of research animals. Private accreditation for the care of captive animals is common across different kinds of facilities that house nonhuman animals, including those in research, but also in zoos and sanctuaries, who have their own accreditation organizations (e.g., American Zoological Association, AZA; Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, GFAS). Importantly, however, unlike oversight by a federal entity, voluntary accreditation does not provide a venue for public oversight and enforcement, nor does it allow for public transparency. For example, both USDA’s APHIS and PHS’s OLAW are responsive to public requests for investigation of facilities and records relating to oversight of those facilities. Private accreditation agencies do not provide public transparency of the accreditation process and/or inspection reports.
There are many sources of federal and local protection of animals in laboratories. Any research on AWA-covered species OR research that receives federal funding will be covered by federal laws aimed at ensuring laboratory animal welfare. Those laws provide for external oversight and for public transparency of records including, for example, inspection and investigation reports.
Most research is also covered by the IACUC system, which provides for oversight and, for many public institutions, another route of public transparency via state open records. Finally, many facilities– both public and private– maintain voluntary accreditation, which also should have a positive impact on animal welfare.
Speaking of Research
For more information about regulation, also see:
Update 5/24/16: “New MOU Among NIH, USDA, and FDA. NIH, USDA, and FDA have participated under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Concerning Laboratory Animal Welfare for over 30 years. Each agency, operating under its own authority, has specific responsibilities for fostering proper animal care and welfare. This agreement sets forth a framework for reciprocal cooperation intended to enhance agency effectiveness while avoiding duplication of efforts in achieving required standards for the care and use of laboratory animals. The new MOU is available at: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/references/finalmou.htm.”