Rodents: Legal Protection in the United States

January 17, 2021Zihao Yu


Rodents, (order rodentia), as the largest group of mammals, are the species of mammals “characterized by upper and lower pairs of ever-growing rootless incisor teeth.” The number of 2050 living species of rodent is about half of the mammal species. Rodents are living naturally in every continent except Antarctica and a few islands. The rodent animals include 27 families from Muridae (rats and mice), beavers, squirrels, marmots to chinchillas. The normal size of the rodents is between the mouse and the marmot. The largest living species is capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) of Central and South America, and the smallest is Delany’s swamp mouse (Delanymys brooksi) in Africa.

Rodents in different uses

Rodents are important to humans in many aspects. Rodents evolve to learn how to live with human beings and they cause damage to crops, food storage, and other objects. Some species are carrying diseases such as plague, murine typhus, and scrub typhus. Some species are raised for different uses, including as food sources for hunting and husbandry, fur industry, research, and test animal, as well as pets.

The law is on two sides for the rodents. For the negative impact of rodents on human beings, the law controls the rodents in order to prevent diseases and prevent them as invasive species. However, when they are not harming human beings, rodents are protected as endangered species, pets, or the welfare of laboratory animals.

"File:(2) Marmota caligata (Hoary Marmot).jpg" by Steven Pavlov is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Rodents under the Animal Welfare Act

Birds, rats, and mice comprise approximately 90 percent of all animals in the U.S. laboratories, yet they are not covered by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) a law that provides regulatory oversight of commercial uses of animals, including in research and testing. Enacted in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was amended in 1970 to protect the health and well-being of all warm-blooded animals used in experiments. However, in 1971, birds, rats, and mice were specifically excluded from AWA regulations by the Secretary of Agriculture. In an effort to gain legal protection for birds, rats, and mice, AAVS launched Project Animal Welfare Act: An Act for All on April 30, 1998.


In 1998, following earlier actions taken by prominent animal rights groups, AAVS and its affiliate, Alternatives Research & Development Foundation (ARDF) and others filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), requesting that the birds, rats, and mice exclusion be removed. A year later, ARDF and two additional plaintiffs (a psychology student and InVitro International, a company that develops non-animal alternative test methods) filed a lawsuit against the USDA claiming that the agency did not have a legal basis to exclude the animals.

On September 28, 2000, USDA settled the suit and agreed to begin the rulemaking process to grant protection of birds, rats, and mice. This process would include solicitation of comments from all stakeholders to assure that the regulations are enforceable. This agreement with USDA, granting birds, rats, and mice protection under the AWA, was hailed as one of the Top Ten Victories for Animals in 2000.

The guinea pigs and hamsters are covered by the Animal Welfare Act. The Animal Welfare Regulation has the Subpart B – Specifications for the Humane Handling, Care, Treatment, and Transportation of Guinea Pigs and Hamsters under Part C Standards.

Rodents as endangered species

According to IUCN Red List 2012, 62% of rodents are at low risk of extinct, 4% near-threatened, 16% threatened, 2 extinct, and 16% data deficient. In general, rodents have a strong ability to reproduce and are competitive in the environment. As the number of species is large, there are still hundreds of species are within the endangered level. Their major threat is the harm of escaped or stray cats.

Gerbils are illegal to own as pets in California and Hawaii because these states have a climate similar to the rodents' natural desert habitat. If they escape into the wild, they could form colonies and disrupt endemic flora and fauna.

"Rodent" by country_boy_shane is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Rodents as pets

Pet rodents (such as hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs) can make great pets for the right family. However, pet rodents, even when they look clean and healthy, can carry germs that can make people sick. Read more instructions here.

There is a range of small rodent species that offer options from interesting exotics to placid, domesticated species. They usually live in an enclosed habitat like a cage, pen, or hutch, but most will enjoy spending time outside their habitat with their human family. Their size and cage-pet status can make them seem like a less expensive or easier pet-keeping option. However, rodents still require an investment of time, attention, and resources in order to thrive and provide the best companionship for their owners. Read more here.

Hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats, and guinea pigs are the most common species of pets. These are covered by the Animal Welfare Act. Some species are not for the purpose of domestic pets, these are prohibited in some states. Read more here.

When using rodents as pet food, frozen or live rodents used for pet food, also called feeder rodents, can carry germs that can make people sick. This can happen even if the rodent looks clean and healthy. Freezing does not kill these germs. Read more instructions here.

"File:Cute colourful guinea pig domesticated.jpg" by Rex tremendae majestatis is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Rodents control

Rodents are controlled mainly for disease prevention. Worldwide, rats and mice spread over 35 diseases. These diseases can be spread to humans directly, through the handling of rodents, through contact with rodent feces, urine, or saliva, or through rodent bites. Diseases carried by rodents can also be spread to humans indirectly, through ticks, mites, or fleas that have fed on an infected rodent. The diseases can be transmitted by rodents directly or indirectly. Read more here.

In addition to its regulatory role, EPA works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and various other state and local agencies and institutions to provide to the public information and tools for controlling rodents and the risks they may pose. CDC protects public health and works closely with state and local health departments to provide the public with information. They are a rich source of information regarding rodent management. CDC also has a fact sheet for rodent control in disaster settings. EPA has the regulation for Restrictions on Rodenticide Products.

The importation of the rodents is also regulated for disease control including the African Rodent Importation Ban and a specific requirement on bringing small animals.

Many states also have state-level regulations for rodent control. For example, the Structural Pest Control Act in Illinois, California, and Florida.

"Transdermal Testers" by jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Laboratory rodents

Rodents in labs are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). There are other sources or policies with regards to their welfare protection, including the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC) guideline and The Public Health Service (PHS).

The Public Health Service (PHS) Policy is based on the "US Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research and Teaching," which were developed by the Interagency Research Animal Committee. The requirements of the PHS policy are very similar to those listed above for the Animal Welfare Act.

The PHS policy is not federal law. However, institutions must be in compliance to qualify for funding from any PHS member agency. In addition, many funding agencies outside the PHS are adopting the PHS standards of animal care and use as described in the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (ILAR Guide), developed by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources. The PHS policy applies to all live vertebrate animals used in teaching, research, and testing. The Guide describes the elements of acceptable institutional policies and veterinary care programs as well as specific physical requirements for the animal facility. The Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching also serves as a standard where agricultural animals are being used in agricultural research and teaching.


AAALAC, a private, nonprofit organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science through voluntary accreditation and assessment programs. AAALAC relies on Three Primary Standards for evaluating laboratory animal care and use programs: the eighth edition of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (Guide, NRC 2011); the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching (Ag Guide, FASS 2010); and the European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals Used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes, Council of Europe; (ETS 123); along with other widely accepted guidelines.


Rodents are a large family of mammals, some need to be controlled to prevent diseases and other species used by human beings shall be protected for their basic animal welfare, and endangered species shall be protected from being extinct. Most Asian countries have regulation on pest and disease control, but the legislation on other areas are not enough for either the protection for animals or the protection of public health. The domestic pet industry, the fur industry, and the laboratory animals shall also be taken into consideration because the potential risk always exists whenever there is human-rodent interaction.

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