The Animal Welfare Act - A Framework for the 21st Century

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 marks a major milestone in the development of New Zealand's animal welfare system. it replaces the previous Animals Protection Act and Regulations and keeps New Zealand at the forefront with some of the world's most progressive and comprehensive animal welfare law. It took effect from 1 january 2000.

Key features of the Act include:

Obligation to care for animals

While penalties for ill-treatment of animals are still featured, there is greater emphasis on prevention. This is done by clearly establishing the obligations of those responsible for the care of animals. The needs of animals take note of the internationally recognised five freedoms:

  • proper and sufficient food and water
  • adequate shelter
  • the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour
  • physical handling in a way which minimises the likelihood of unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress
  • protection from, and rapid diagnosis of, any significant injury or disease.

These obligations are qualified, however, as the needs in each individual case are assessed according to what is appropriate to the species, environment and circumstances of an animal.


Detailed minimum standards are contained in codes of welfare (see page 14-15), which can be amended quickly and easily.

Definition of animals

The range of animals protected by legislation has been widened to include all animals that are capable of feeling pain. The definition of animals under the Act therefore includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crabs, crayfish, squid and octopus.

Surgical procedures

The Act restricts who may perform certain surgical procedures on animals and under what conditions. Minor, or non-significant procedures may be carried out by owners or people in charge of animals (rather than veterinarians). Significant surgical procedures can be carried out only by a veterinarian or under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Animal exports

The Animal Welfare Act introduces a certification requirement for the export of animals that are not otherwise exempted. Exemptions are provided for export situations (eg, short haul flights for some species) which pose minimal risk to the animals.

Research, testing and teaching

The Animal Welfare Act provides that no research, testing or teaching may be carried out on any live animal unless the person or organisation involved holds an approved code of ethical conduct. Further, no project may proceed without the approval of an animal ethics committee established under such codes. The committees will now be subject to independent review. In line with growing public scrutiny, this system provides for greater transparency and accountability when decisions are made about the use of animals in this context.


The Animal Welfare Act allows the Minister to appoint approved organisations to enforce the legislation and destroy, sell or rehouse animals which are given into their care. Inspectors are appointed on the recommendation of an approved organisation. Under the Act the RNZSPCA is already deemed to be an approved organisation.

Animals in the wild

While the Animal Welfare Act 1999 does not make it unlawful to carry out animal pest control, or to hunt or fish for animals in the wild, ill-treatment of animals in the wild outside the hunting, fishing or pest control context would be in breach of the Act. The Act also provides for restrictions on the types of traps and devices used in trapping and for other purposes, and for animals caught alive (eg, during pest control) to be killed humanely.

Codes of welfare

The codes developed by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC - formerly the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, or AWAC) specify minimum standards and recommendations for best practice. Progressively NAWAC will be reviewing the existing voluntary codes and recommending the Minister issue them under the Act.

While breach of a code will not constitute an offence in itself, it may lead to legal action for breaches of the Animal Welfare Act. The codes that have been published can be found here:

All existing voluntary codes will be revised within three years of the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act.

In addition to the codes, a number of guidelines for the welfare of animals have been published by NAWAC. Published guidelines can be found at:

MAF's role

Under the Animal Welfare Act, MAF will continue to play a pivotal role. Specifically, MAF will:

  • provide policy advice to the Minister on animal welfare and the administration of the Act
  • facilitate information exchange and access to high quality research information
  • recommend standards that are practical, fair and responsive to society's expectations
  • help ensure that New Zealand retains its international reputation with a progressive, responsive and innovative approach to animal welfare issues
  • facilitate interaction between the key stakeholders on animal welfare issues
  • maintain links with appropriate international agencies
  • monitor and review the performance of approved organisations, inspectors and auxiliary officers
  • enforce animal welfare legislation and audit the activities of non-Crown enforcement organisations
  • support education and training programmes and the ministerial advisory committees.

Page last updated: 13 May 2011