Above and beyond


It began with an unconscious kitten, bleeding out of one nostril with lung contusions on the same side, radiographs later showed. The owner's presentation didn't correlate with the injuries, and neglect or abuse was likely.

It began with an unconscious kitten, bleeding out of one nostril with lung contusions on the same side, radiographs later showed. The owner's presentation didn't correlate with the injuries, and neglect or abuse was likely.

"That was the first case I had where the history didn't match the symptoms, and it made me suspicious," says Dr. Melinda Merck, owner of The Cat Clinic of Roswell in Georgia.

Old bruises on this cat might indicate a pattern of abuse. Chipped or broken teeth also can clue a clinician into the quality of life of an animal. Dr. Melinda Merck examines a patient for hints of neglect or abuse. The lions share of practitioners will encounter abuse/neglect cases each year, but few metrics exist to determine an animals level of care.

The recent graduate reported the case as abuse to the authorities, but the owner skipped town. In the meantime, Merck realized that an abysmal lack of resources helped prohibit general practitioners from recognizing non-accidental injuries or abuse.

Taking matters into her own hands, she contacted her local medical examiner to learn the human side of forensics. From that point on, whenever there was a homicide, Merck would trudge down to the morgue to observe the grim details of forensic medical examinations. She read extensively on the subject and translated what she learned to the animal world.

Demand for forensic information is on the rise as more states require veterinarians to report suspicions of animal abuse. General practitioners increasingly are required to have adequate training in recognizing abuse, reporting it to proper authorities and conducting evaluations that will hold up in court.

Animal cruelty now carries a felony sentence in 41 states and the District of Columbia, according to the American Humane Association. Though many of the proposed statewide abuse-reporting requirements shield veterinarians from criminal or civil prosecution, compliance can be difficult.

Table 1: Patterns on Non-Accidental Injury

Issues with reporting suspected abuse or cruelty

A study published in the 1999 Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) indicated that 78.9 percent of veterinarians surveyed had seen at least one case of animal abuse in their practices. Although the majority of survey respondents agreed that veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to report suspicions of abuse, less than half felt the responsibility should be mandated by law (Donley, Patronek, & Luke, 1999).

"We can't keep turning a blind eye to this, especially when the statistics are so startling about how animal abuse is linked to other crimes," Merck says.

She is not alone.

"Violence is violence," explains Dr. Annette Rauch at the Tufts' Center for Animals and Public Policy. "People who deal with their frustrations in life through violence do so very indiscriminately."

Two issues might be swaying veterinarians from reporting suspected abuse. One is simply inherent in the profession itself.

"We're in a feel-good profession," Merck says. "We want to think the human-animal bond is there for anybody who walks in our practice."

The other issue is fear of retaliation.

"I think veterinarians are not aware that they're protected from civil and criminal liability," she says, referring to the immunity clauses in many states that protect a veterinarian who reports abuse in good faith.

Recognizing patterns of non-accidental injury

General veterinary practitioners are focused primarily on preserving health, so facing the possibility of cruelty or abuse requires thinking "outside the box" as Merck calls it. "Anytime you have injuries that don't match the history, then you have to think cruelty," she explains. "Forensic investigation for cruelty is just expanding your possibilities to some horrific possibilities."

General practitioners are faced with moving out of their comfort zone in terms of considering that an injured animal may be a victim of cruelty. Merck believes that this is simply a matter of gaining confidence. "Veterinarians are still afraid to do that but we do it all the time day-to-day; we tell people 'your cat or your dog has this'."

Merck believes that neglect is the No. 1 form of abuse that general practitioners will encounter, yet 75 percent of practitioners indicated a lack of comfort in deciding what constitutes suboptimal care versus outright neglect, according to the JAAWS survey. However, 70 percent either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement: "Published criteria to develop an index of suspicion about deliberate abuse would make me more likely to report a suspected 'battered pet'. "

Neglect is one of the primary reasons they are given by law enforcement officials when requesting a necropsy, says Dr. Sean P. McDonough, Chief of Anatomic Pathology at Cornell University's Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Unlike pediatricians who are more familiar with the warning signs of child abuse and who have more resources to make differential diagnosis, veterinarians typically have not been made aware of what constitutes abuse of a domestic animal. But many of the red flags that indicate child abuse can be used in the animal world, Rauch says.

Indicators include a known history of violence in the home, repetitive injuries over time, multiple injured animals in the home and evidence of healed injuries.

The veterinary forensics process

While no standardized forensic procedures exist for domesticated animals, the process parallels its human counterpart. The following steps should be taken in a domesticated animal abuse case, Merck says:

  • Complete a thorough examination to make a diagnosis of abuse or cruelty, keeping in mind that as soon as suspicions of crime arise the animal becomes evidence that must be preserved as such.

  • Report the abuse to authorities while finding a way to protect the animal from additional mistreatment. Veterinarians should follow their state's guidelines regarding whom to contact, either the police or an animal-control officer. Because animal forensics falls under the broader heading of shelter medicine, most animal-control facilities will have a cruelty investigation department.

  • Conduct the forensic medical examination, which consists of taking appropriate samples, photographs and radiographs. Timing is everything. The integrity of the case can be compromised if too-much time elapses between suspicion and investigation.

  • Establish a chain of custody for the evidence. Documenting who has custody of the samples at all times is standard operating procedure for human forensics labs. Establishing a chain of custody ensures that a defense attorney cannot claim sample tampering and weaken the case. There are several steps involved in establishing a chain of custody:

  • Tag all evidence. Include date, time, description of item and signature.

  • Keep samples and all other data in a secured location. Access to this location should be restricted.

  • Maintain an evidence log. It is paramount to document who has custody of the sample at all times.

  • Document how samples were shipped. Include details about the type of packaging, how many ice packs were used, what color and type of box or envelope the items were shipped in. Use evidence tape when securing boxes. Receiver should sign with the date, time and description of item received.

  • Analyze data from the crime scene if necessary. Veterinarians can assist the crime-scene unit with photographs or documentation.

  • Complete a written report. A preliminary report might be followed by a more-detailed report that includes lab findings.

Veterinarians should document normal and abnormal findings as evidence. Four categories of injury or death should be reported: natural, accidental, non-accidental and undetermined, Merck says.

  • Testify in court. Merck suggests these tips for making a successful court appearance: Ask the prosecutor to provide questions ahead of time; take radiographs and photographs to court; answer only the question asked, and don't elaborate.

It's also important for veterinarians to let the prosecutor know ahead of time what they can and cannot testify to, says Dr. Richard Stroud, senior veterinary medical examiner at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"Stick to your science, and let the lawyers do the rest," he advises.

Building the case

The veterinarian's role in a forensics case is paramount at the beginning of the process since the burden of proof rests primarily on the veterinarian's shoulders; however, this role becomes less prominent as the case unfolds. The examination and subsequent report will illustrate probable causes of injury or death and be the basis upon which a prosecutor builds a case, but in terms of actual prosecution, the practitioner's role is minor.

"The primary point to remember when beginning a forensics examination is that everything the veterinarian does from that point forward is subject to scrutiny in a court of law," Merck says. "Making the case for animal cruelty requires a perfect examination from beginning to end."

Key points to remember:

  • Prevent contamination of the evidence by wearing gloves, cap, mask and gown.

  • Use a digital camera to take close up, midrange, and distance photos to give context; save the photo card indefinitely in a locked cabinet.

  • Document the animal's mental status: Note the behavior and overall emotional state of the animal, and any peculiar fear reactions to certain people or types of clothing.

  • Examine the coat and feet for trace evidence (saliva, blood, body fluids) using a UV light source.

  • Always take control samples. This will ensure accuracy of test results and bolsters their significance.

University labs can help

DNA testing in animals historically has been used by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to prosecute forensic wildlife cases or by diagnostic labs to assist breeders in identifying parentage. The field is expanding rapidly to include DNA as a genetic fingerprint to link a perpetrator to a crime involving domesticated animal abuse or cruelty.

Several animal DNA testing sites exist in the United States. The lab at University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) has a database of thousands of domestic animals, and lab staff will provide a written report of findings to the agency or person that submitted the sample, usually within 48 hours of submission.

"DNA typing is a very effective tool to match a person on an animal or place or vice versa," says Dr. Sree Kanthaswamy, associate director of the Veterinary Forensics Laboratory at UC-Davis.

DNA Diagnostics Inc. in Timpson, Texas also has been conducting DNA tests on animals for several years. Dr. Melba Ketchum, director of the Veterinary Department, is president of the International Academy of Plant and Animal Forensics and currently working to establish accreditation standards for veterinary forensics labs as the field grows.

While DNA profiling can be very accurate in terms of linking a perpetrator to a crime involving an animal, the lack of a convenient source for the test need not hinder the effectiveness of a veterinary forensics case.

All veterinary labs can assist in a forensics case, says Dr. Doris Miller, director of the Athens Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University of Georgia.

If veterinarians who suspect animal abuse alert the lab to that fact when sending in samples, then it will help the process, Miller says.

Subsequently, "the diagnostic labs can do the histopaths and cultures and gather enough data to help in those legal cases like forensics," she says.

"Animal cruelty is recognized as a crime and a link to future violence," Merck says. "It's taken a long time for that to be taken seriously."

Editor’s Note: Sample forensic forms and logs can be downloaded on at www.veterinaryforensics.com.

Kelly L Stone is a freelance writer based in Lawrenceville, Ga.

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