Veterinarians reporting abuse stuck between ethics, self preservation


CLEVELAND — Veterinarians often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, compelled morally to report abuse cases and bound legally with the possibilities of civil or criminal prosecution.

CLEVELAND — Veterinarians often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, compelled morally to report abuse cases and bound legally with the possibilities of civil or criminal prosecution.

Almost a dozen states have addressed the dilemmas facing practitioners, including the lack of protocols for documenting abuse cases for public testimony and fear of legal retribution.

Dr. Ralph Johnson

Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA) is supporting legislation in 2005 that would add Texas to the list of 11 states that shield reporting veterinarians from criminal and punitive legal action.

"The words 'good faith belief' will be added for veterinarians' protection," TVMA general council Chris Copeland says. "The general public thinks: 'just report abuse.' But it's not that easy. Veterinarians must consider what the consequences are — to their practice, staff, the animal — that is why it is important to get some laws to protect them."

Table 1: Reporting abuse for veterinarians, it is a state issue

States making a change

Florida protects veterinarians with a law that shields them from criminal and civil prosecution, as does New York, Massachusetts and eight other states.

Mandatory reporting would make the best legislation because it would not only protect the animals, it can defend children, too, says Belinda Mager, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States.

"There have been numerous studies linking animal abuse and child abuse, which may be the prime reason lawmakers eventually mandate veterinarians reporting animal abuse," says Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). "Veterinarians are protected when reporting animal abuse in Colorado and required to report child abuse."

Veterinarians are in a position to act as a sentinel for numerous types of violence. By reporting animal abuse, other abuses within the family might also be unveiled.

Justifications for reporting cruelty to animals include the veterinary oath, "to prevent suffering."

Veterinary schools have been educating students on detecting abuse actively during the last 10 years, leaving veterinarians whose schools were slow to teach subtle detection in the dark.

"Every veterinarian will see neglect cases in their career," says Dr. Gary Patronek, president of the Hording of Animals Research Consortium and professor of veterinary medicine at Tufts University. "There is no way, even in the best practices, that neglect and abuse will not be seen."

Rhode Island sentiment

In 2001, the Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association (RIVMA) conducted a survey of 200 veterinarians to learn more about the situations their members face almost daily regarding animal abuse, cruelty and neglect.

Results showed the most common type of cruelty was lack of nutrition or care. In these cases, treatment often is possible, but euthanasia is the most common result.

Of the veterinarians polled, 63 percent say they feel they have a moral responsibility to report abuse when they see it. Other factors included the severity and frequency of the offenses.

Approximately 45 percent of veterinarians polled say they are not prepared to be an expert witness in a criminal case.

Thirty-seven percent of the DVMs say they believe their clinics have adequate standards for recognizing abuse and neglect, while 11 percent say they do not think they have adequate standards.

About 35 percent of veterinarians say police and other law enforcement agencies do not respond adequately to reports of animal abuse.


Seeing animal abuse in a veterinary clinic is not as clear-cut as it is in human medicine. A 1962 report by Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegemuller and Silver prompted the identification of distinct signs of child abuse, such as multiple fractures in different stages of healing and retinal hemorrhages. Some of these signs might apply to animals, however, no single publication describes what to look for when ferreting out such abuse cases.

"Veterinarians should prepare themselves to present their findings in court when called upon by police or humane agents," Patronek says. "Discoveries upon evaluating an animal that was burnt, shot, tortured, etc., may be used as prima facie (Latin meaning at first view: effective in establishing fact unless rebutted) evidence of deliberate abuse."

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