Colorado to mandate animal-abuse reporting


Denver, Colo. - Colorado's governor inked a new practice-act statute that requires DVMs to report suspected animal abuse. Supported by organized veterinary medicine, the statute change is meant to improve protection of animals and people.

DENVER, COLO. — Colorado's governor inked a new practice-act statute that requires DVMs to report suspected animal abuse. Supported by organized veterinary medicine, the statute change is meant to improve protection of animals and people.

Colorado joins more than a dozen other states that are placing legislative focus on animal protection — a movement started in the 1820s, more than 150 years before the recognition of child abuse, but lacked the force of law until now.

The law goes into effect July 1, says Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) — a main proponent of the mandate. Veterinarians could face a maximum sentence of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for violations, according to Diane Balkin, senior deputy district attorney in Denver.

The legislation comes during a wave of heightened animal-protection and abuse-awareness lobbying, with Indiana recently passing a law allowing some forms of animal abuse to be considered domestic violence and also giving courts the right to issue protective orders on behalf of pets. More than a dozen other states are considering similar legislation.

Colorado's reporting law is not supported by all veterinarians. Some argue it expects too much of DVMs who they say receive too little training to identify animal abuse. Ethical issues aside, others may harbor reservations about mandating reporting because it requires veterinarians to draw conclusions about situations, sometimes with little guidance, says Greg Hayes, 30-year DVM with Arapahoe Animal Hospital in Boulder, Colo.

"I think we are going to get into a can of worms here. I think it is a good thing for starters, because animals need help and protection when they are in bad situations. The problem is, where do you draw the line? It is tough for veterinarians to be the psychotherapists as well as the social workers. Since everyone has different opinions, you could get a lot of people in tough situations that may not deserve to be there," he says.

Yet armed with survey approval from 80 percent of its members, CVMA pursued the state practice-act changes after asking members their opinions on a variety of animal-law issues. "We did have concerns by some members, particularly in small rural communities, where, if they reported something, they were going to see that farmer or rancher at the diner or in the church pew," Johnson says. "Though you still want to ethically do the right thing, you have to consider this in small communities. This allows those veterinarians to say, 'I must do this. I must provide this information. This is not right; I have to move this case forward.' "

Colorado joins a growing list of states with similar legislation — California, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin have statutes mandating the reporting of suspected animal cruelty or fighting; Arizona, Illinois, Maryland and Oklahoma's statutes are included in their state practice acts; and Kansas and West Virginia require reporting through state regulations, reports Sarah Babcock, DVM, JD with Animal and Veterinary Legal Services, PLLC, Detroit, Mich. She released the information in a September 2006 article entitled "Requirements for Mandatory Reporting of Animal Cruelty."

Colorado's law, which also amends requirements for academic licensure and the implementation of physical therapy mandates, protects veterinarians by providing them with immunity from civil and criminal liability when reports are made in good faith — a clause mirroring a portion of American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Model Veterinary Practice Act.

Commentary to Section 21 of the act says, "the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such (abuse or neglect) cases to appropriate authorities. Disclosure may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people."

CVMA advocated its position on the law through the testimony of immediate past president Todd Towell, DVM, at a March hearing before the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.

"We feel it is our duty as primary-care providers to report cases where we suspect animals are being treated cruelly for several reasons: Mandatory reporting of animal cruelty is clearly consistent with the veterinarian's oath to prevent animal suffering; there is growing awareness of a strong link between cruelty to animals and violence towards humans; and, for years, veterinarians and other professionals have been mandated to report suspected child abuse. We believe this is a prudent responsibility that should apply to our animal patients," Towell said during testimony.

Upholding the oath

Although most veterinarians are not required by law to report suspected animal abuse, ethically it is their duty to protect their clients, says Melinda Merck, DVM and veterinary forensic consultant with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Veterinarians have a lot of valid concerns as to whether they should get involved with reporting animal abuse and whether that should be mandated," says Phil Arkow, interim director for the American Humane Association's Human/Animal Bond Programs. "But in the absence of training protocols and clinical definitions, peer, statistical and national association support and other guidelines, they are understandably reluctant to jump into this fray."

DVMs often fear civil and criminal liability — charges of libel, slander or even filing a false report — if they report abuse and are wrong. But such concerns are unfounded, says Merck.

"Many states have language protecting veterinarians and their staff, and even if there is no language on their behalf, they are protected under each state's Good Samaritan law. Veterinarians need to know that if they report abuse in good faith, they are protected," she says.

Family practitioners and other child-welfare advocates anticipated similar repercussions when the reporting of child abuse first became mandated, but those concerns were put to rest. "The experience of the human medical field has been that those fears have not really materialized," Arkow says.

Yet despite the AVMA veterinarian oath, part of which states, "...I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health (and) the relief of animal suffering," many DVMs still remain reluctant to report suspected abuse.

"Veterinarians are afraid of losing money and losing their clients. They are afraid of liability concerns. They haven't had training to identify abuse," Arkow says. "They are afraid of confidentiality issues. Veterinarians, by nature, are fairly conservative and don't want to be the first kid on the block to change."

But as society's view of companion animals continues to develop, the public may begin to expect more out of their veterinarians. A 2002 AVMA study reported that just 2 percent of Americans consider their pets to be property, while 98 percent think of them as either companions or family members.

"Most people today are animal lovers. Even if they don't own an animal, no one wants to see an animal abused as a helpless victim," Merck says. "We know we are seeing abuse. It is just getting veterinarians empowered to act on it."

Seeing the link

Hesitation to be more proactive in abuse reporting not only goes against the DVM duty to animal patients, but also contradicts another part of AVMA's oath — a promise to promote public health. Continuing studies support the idea that animal and child abuse are connected and veterinarians can act as a key to breaking the cycle.

"The thing with animal cruelty is that it is almost always linked with other crimes. Recognizing animal cruelty could be a chance to help someone in a domestic vio lence or child-cruelty situation. It helps protect society from repeat offenders, because the chances of animal abusers committing other crimes are somewhat high," Merck says.

A handful of states — California, Louisiana, Connecticut, Ohio and Tennessee, among others — have cross-reporting laws requiring animal humane officers and child agency and protection advocates to report all types of abuse seen in homes, not just that pertaining to their focus, says Mary Lou Randour, PhD, professional outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States.

"The fate of children and the fate of animals are certainly tied together. When ani mals or children are mistreated, there are usually other victims. We are trying to emphasize both children and animals need to be protected, and there is strength in that pairing," Randour says.

Veterinarians may have a stronger vantage point than most professions for encountering and recognizing not only animal, but child and domestic abuse, Arkow says.

"The fact is that veterinarians see more human clients than animal patients. We know from AVMA market data that the primary care givers of companion animals are women, and the primary market for companion animals is homes with children. Consequently, the veterinarian is very likely to see three of the prime potential targets for family violence: animals, women and children," Arkow says. Cross-reporting offers the opportunity for health care workers across all facets to be part of a holistic system that targets abuse, he says.

Looking ahead

A study by Drs. Melanie Sharpe and Ruth Landou showed veterinary students receive a total of 76 minutes of training on animal abuse in school. The curriculum is crowded, and this subject doesn't usually warrant focused attention because it is often categorized as a client management issue that the veterinarian will see, but not necessarily in large volume, Arkow says.

"But when abuse does occur, the veterinarian needs to be prepared to know how to respond and ensure that the response is not just from a medical standpoint, but also from a social responsibility as a family practitioner," he says.

Interest in implementing veterinary forensic courses to teach investigative and medical techniques for identifying injury causes and recognizing abuse has already been building, and Merck anticipates the field to one day support its own educational specialty.

Colorado's law may be just the beginning, Arkow says. "I think once a few states incorporate these kinds of laws and veterinarians begin to see it not as big a fear as they were worried about, and as more women enter the profession with a greater sensitivity toward domestic violence, I think many veterinarians will start to realize that this is the right thing," Arkow says. "The bottom line is this is going to mean better animal welfare.

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