New Research May Help Veterinarians Distinguish Between Accidental Injury and Animal Abuse


Researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals identify different injury patterns in motor vehicle accident cases and animal abuse cases.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, whereas 20 men and women are abused per minute in the country, when it comes to pets, about 70 million dogs and 74.1 million cats are abused in that same minute, equating to about 10 million dogs and cat each year. As in human cases, it is often difficult to differentiate between accidental trauma and physical abuse in animals.

Currently, the only guidelines on abuse that are available to the veterinary community are provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and focus on the identification of suspicious behavior. In an effort to identify and report cruelty cases, researchers from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), have identified injuries found to be specific to abuse cases, which may be the first step in the development of much needed guidelines that can be used by veterinarians to better identify abusive injuries within pets.

As with human abuse, when it comes to “non-accidental cases,” oftentimes the reported cause of the incident will differ largely from what actually happened. According to the university’s press release, one of the most common reported causes for skeletal injuries within pets are motor vehicle accidents.

By using ASPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement Division records which contained 50 cases of reported animal abuse as well as 429 motor vehicle accident cases provided by the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Cummings School, the researchers were able to compare two animal populations with verified causes of injury, allowing them to closely analyze the differences in injuries for their study.

Nida Intarapanich, fourth-year veterinary student at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, commented in a press release, “Our research has found that non-accidental injury and motor vehicle accidents cause different patterns of skeletal and soft tissue injury.”

The researchers found that head injuries, rib and tooth fractures, claw damage, and evidence of older fractures were more common in abused animal cases, whereas scratches or cuts on the skin, lung bruising or collapse, and hind end injuries (presumably caused from attempts at running away from moving vehicles) were more commonly found in animals involved in motor vehicle accidents.

One of the most notable differences could be witnessed in the rib injuries; in motor vehicle accidents, the fractures tended to be present on only one side of the body, closer to the head, whereas in abuse cases, the rib fractures tended to be present on both sides. Evidence of previous, older fractures were also related to abuse cases, something that is commonly witnessed in human abuse cases as well.

According to study author, Emily McCobb, DVM, MS, DACVAA, clinical assistant professor and director of the Shelter Medicine Program at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, previous to this study, there has not been a good deal of research done in relation to injury patterns in animal abuse cases. The lack of veterinary literature pertaining to these specific injuries leaves veterinarians at a slight disadvantage when it comes to identifying and reporting animal abuse cases.

Beth Thompson, VMD, a small animal veterinarian, , and developmental editor and writer who produces informational and educational material for veterinary professionals commented to American Veterinarian, “These kinds of things were not often thought of in the past; an owner’s history was not commonly questioned.” When it comes to suspicions of animal abuse, there are questions that need to be asked. “Questions like: Are there radiographic signs of older injuries? Are there unexplained scars on the animal’s body? If HBC is suspected, are there signs of road rash?”

With additional information pertaining to the actual differences in injury when it comes to accidental injury and non-accidental injury, veterinarians might be able to establish guidelines that could better help them identify cruelty cases.

Dr. Thompson added, “I think this paper adds to the growing library of information on the subject and helps veterinarians be more aware and better stewards of their patient’s health and safety.”

In the press release, Robert Reisman, DVM, supervisor of forensic sciences, ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Group, and fellow collaborator on the study said, “This study…will help forensic veterinarians continue to give a voice to the voiceless.”

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