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New Zealand

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

The agricultural industry is a key pillar of New Zealand’s economy and this industry benefits from the perception that the country has rigorous and effective animal welfare regulation. This week guest writer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere of the University of Otago will explore the main piece of legislation that governs animal welfare in New Zealand.


The Animal Welfare Act 1999 (AWA) is at the centre of that regulatory framework, and imposes duties of care on all those who own or in charge of animals, as well as prohibiting their ill-treatment, providing a framework for the use of animals in testing, teaching and research. The Act operates alongside other legislation, such as the Dog Control Act 1996 and the Wildlife Act 1953, but by far is the most important legislation relating to animals in New Zealand.

In addition to its general provisions (outlined below), the AWA also provides for the creation of supplementary regulations such as the Animal Welfare (Care and Procedures) Regulations 2018 which creates offences involving the use, care and protection of specific animals. It also provides for codes of welfare, which impose minimum standards and best practices for certain animals, practices, or industries. While regulations are directly enforceable, evidence of failure to meet the standards in relevant codes may only be used to support prosecutions under the Act, with evidence of following codes also being a defence.

What animals are protected under the Act?

Animal is defined widely in the Act, as encompassing all mammals, birds, reptiles, certain fish, octopus and squid, lobster, crab, and crayfish. Animal extends to any unborn animal in its last half of gestation. This definition can be extended by the Governor-General.

What does the Act cover?

The AWA operates in two main parts. Part 1 sets out obligations of those who own or in charge of animals to care properly for their welfare. Part 2 sets out general provisions relating to ill-treatment against animals. Persons in charge of animals is defined in s 2 as anyone who has an animal in their possession or custody, or under their care, control, or supervision. This broad definition helps to ensure accountability where several persons are supervising an animal.

What is an ‘owners’ responsibility towards an animal?

Section 10 in part 1 of the AWA creates a duty for all owners and persons in charge of animals to ensure that animals physical, health and behavioural needs are met in accordance with good practice and scientific knowledge. Physical, health and behavioural needs is defined in s 4 as including proper and sufficient food and water; adequate shelter; the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour; appropriate physical; and protection from, and the rapid diagnosis of, any significant injury or disease. These needs mirror those articulated in the Five Freedoms, and the requirements vary depending on the species, environment, and circumstances of the animal.

Owners and all persons in charge of an animal must also under s 11 ensure that animals receive treatment to alleviate any unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress. There is no requirement that an animal is kept alive, only that it is killed without unnecessary pain or distress, reflecting animals’ status as chattel property in New Zealand.

What ill treatment is prohibited under the Act?

Ill- treatment is defined in s 2 as any act or omission causing pain or distress that is in its kind, degree, or object, or in the circumstances as inflicted, unreasonable or unnecessary. Part 2 has a hierarchy of offending involving ill-treatment of animals. Section 28 prohibits wilful ill-treatment and resulting in permanent disability, death, or serious injury or impairment requiring veterinary attention. Section 28A prohibits reckless ill-treatment in the same manner. Section 29 prohibits ill-treatment simpliciter, a strict-liability offence requiring no mens rea but with a series of statutory defences available in s 30 of the Act. Section 30A expressly extends these penalties to the wilful and reckless ill-treatment of wild animals and animals in a wild state. The punishments for ill-treatment mirror the hierarchy of seriousness, with a conviction for wilful ill-treatment being punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine.

Is animal testing covered under the Act?

Part 6 of the AWA details the regulations for animal testing, teaching and research. Animal testing, teaching and research requires an approved code of ethics and an ethics committee to oversee the project, in accordance with the 3Rs. The use of animals in testing, teaching and research is not limited by parts 1 and 2 but failing to comply with part 6 enables liability under parts 1 and 2.

How is the Act enforced?

Finally, the AWA also provides for the appointment of animal welfare inspectors with powers to investigate animal welfare and enforce the AWA. Inspectors’ powers include being able to enter certain land, take steps to mitigate animal suffering, and apply to the district court for enforcement orders and serve notices to comply with the Act. The current appointed inspectors are the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the RNZSPCA and the Police, although enforcement is, in practice, undertaken by the MPI for agricultural animals and the RNZSPCA for companion animals.

Getting Advice

This blog post is not legal advice. For more information on the services Advocates for Animals offers please contact

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