Recognizing and Reporting Abuse and Neglect
Veterinarians are in a prime position to identify and address animal mistreatment. Here’s what you need to know.
When you became a veterinarian, you pledged an oath to use your “scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, [and] the prevention and relief of animal suffering...”
Normally, carrying out that promise and caring for your patients is fairly straightforward, but on occasion you might see a case that doesn’t sit well with you. Maybe the abuse is obvious, but more often than not, you just have a feeling that this animal’s suffering has been caused by the hand of a person. Whether the situation is one of ignorance, neglect, or outright cruelty, turning your suspicion into action requires a careful approach.
- AVMA 2017: How to Deal With Animal Neglect Cases
- Veterinarians: Protecting Pets and People from Abuse
It is a misconception that animal abusers do not seek veterinary care for their pets, so chances are you will see a neglected or abused animal at some point in your career. In a survey of veterinarians, 87% reported having treated abused patients and 60% reported treating an animal they suspected of being severely or intentionally abused.1 Thus, it is important to have a plan in place to which the entire practice can refer when this inevitability happens. This policy should identify which agencies need to be informed, what client and patient information should be conveyed, and how to collect and preserve evidence.
What Does the Law Say?
State laws vary regarding whether reporting suspected abuse is mandatory or simply “allowed.” To complicate matters, the agencies responsible for investigating these cases range from community animal care and control to municipal or county law enforcement to the state department of agriculture. In human medicine, definitive privacy laws prevent disclosing patient information, but the waters are murky in animal health. Some states recognize the confidentiality of the veterinarian—client relationship, but others do not. In general, however, if the health or welfare of the animal (or associated humans) is at risk, nondisclosure is waived. It is a good idea to research the laws in your area and incorporate them into your standard operating procedures. You may even want to ask the agency responsible for investigating cases of cruelty and neglect to provide training for your staff.
Although your oath obligates you to recognize and report suspected abuse, you are not responsible for proving that the abuse or neglect occurred. That is the job of the local agency tasked with investigating and prosecuting these cases. However, you should understand and teach your staff how to collect, document, and preserve evidence properly.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these cases is keeping meticulous records to maintain the chain of custody of evidence. Include distinguishing characteristics of the animal in the medical record, but avoid conjecture about breed or age. When labeling evidence, note the time collected and from whom (eg, the client gave you the dog’s collar). If an object is too small to mark, place it in a container that can be labeled appropriately. Avoid contaminating evidence when tagging it, such as by writing over a bloodstain.
First collect the evidence that is most likely to be destroyed or degraded by time, environmental conditions, or deliberate action. To prevent tainting it, wear gloves, a cap, a mask, or other gear as appropriate. It’s wise to keep a digital camera handy; most of today’s equipment also takes video.
Besides noting obvious injuries, examine the pet’s coat, mouth, and paws for evidence of chemicals, fiber, or other materials that may indicate home remedies. If an animal is at the clinic for a fracture and you suspect abuse, it may be worthwhile to take whole-body radiographs to look for previous fractures. Necropsy should be performed on any deceased animals. Note: You should establish ahead of time whether any extra steps you take to collect evidence—eg, additional diagnostic testing, blood work, or radiographs—are reimbursable by the agency pursuing the case.
What If You're Wrong?
Because you must often trust your instincts when deciding if abuse or neglect has occurred, how you address the situation might also take a judgment call. This mainly relates to cases of neglect but may also apply when the abuse was not malicious. Sometimes providing education about proper handling and management is all that is needed; for example, a referral to a reputable trainer may help a caregiver more appropriately address animal behavior issues. Regardless, it is important to follow up on these cases by scheduling repeat visits. Be clear that the actions were wrong and that not complying with your recommendations will necessitate calling the authorities. However, if you suspect that the person may disappear or will not make changes, don’t give the individual the benefit of the doubt—make the call now to the proper authority.
In all cases, it is important that you remain safe. Someone who readily abuses his or her pet may not be psychologically stable. Also, don’t break the law to help an animal—don’t trespass to check on a skinny horse, for example.
Another concern is what happens if you’re wrong: Can the person sue you? The short answer is yes, but many states provide absolute or limited immunity against both civil and criminal liability for reporting suspected animal maltreatment. Detailed documentation is critical in these cases. Take comfort that generally the only people who object to you intervening for the benefit of their pet are those who are guilty.4 However, we live in a technological era, so be prepared for a social media backlash. Monitor popular review sites, and have a prepared statement that explains your position in protecting the animal community.
Society has evolved such that animals are now considered family members more than just pets or beasts of burden. However, they are not always treated as well as they should be. As a significant point of contact and someone who has the knowledge and training to recognize abuse and neglect, you can be a champion for the animals in your care. Unfortunately, handling such cases requires not only clinical expertise but also a variety of out-of-the-norm proficiencies, such as tact when broaching the subject with clients and strong documentation skills, not to mention a little bravery for putting yourself out there.
Thankfully, society also has evolved to recognize that neglect and abuse of animals can be criminal, and authorities and resources are available to assist you. By not turning your back on suspected animal abuse, cruelty, or neglect, you not only help the animal in front of you but also make society as a whole more humane.
Ms. Rogers has a bachelor of science degree in animal health from the University of Connecticut and a master of science degree in microbiology and molecular genetics from Rutgers University. She has more than 19 years of experience creating content for a variety of health care audiences. She lives in Kingston, New Jersey, and shares her life with a horse, a dog, and a cat.
- Landau RE. A survey of teaching and implementation: the veterinarian's role in recognizing and reporting abuse. JAVMA. 1999;215(3):328-331.
- Walton-Moss BJ, Manganello J, Frye V, Campbell JC. Risk factors for intimate partner violence and associated injury among urban women. J Commun Health. 2005;30(5):377-389.
- Degenhardt B. Statistical Summary of Offenders Charged with Crimes against Companion Animals July 2001-July 2004. Chicago, IL: Chicago Police Department; 2005.
- Yoffe-Sharp BL, Loar LM. The veterinarian's responsibility to recognize and report animal abuse. JAVMA. 2009;234(6):732-737.