When the bond breaks: Relinquishment, hoarding and abuse: Part 2 (Proceedings)


Animal abandonment and abuse are two of the darkest consequences of a failed human animal bond, both of which are defined as animal cruelty in most, if not all, states.

Animal abandonment and abuse are two of the darkest consequences of a failed human animal bond, both of which are defined as animal cruelty in most, if not all, states. The bond may be broken or never have been formed in cases of animal abuse. There is no single profile that describes the animal abuser; like family violence, animal abuse crosses all socioeconomic lines. Animals may be abused by people for a variety of reasons. Kellert and Felthous provided some of the following reasons: "1) To control the animal, possibly to eliminate undesirable characteristics, 2) To retaliate against the animal for a presumed wrong, 3) To satisfy a prejudice against a breed or species, 4) To instill aggressive tendencies in the animal, 5) To enhance one's own aggression, 6) To shock people and gain attention, 7) To retaliate or get revenge against another person, 8) Displaced hostility, 9) Non specific sadism, including sexual assault." It may be used to hurt or control family members. Abused children may perform acts of animal cruelty or even kill their pets to protect them from even worse abuse and a cruel death, to act out aggression against a more vulnerable household member, to act on aggressive feelings toward abusive adults or because they are imitating the behavior they have observed. It should not be assumed that children will outgrow performing acts of animal cruelty. It has been well established that there is a link between animal abuse and human violence, and that animal abuse may sometimes serve as a predictor of, precursor to or rehearsal for future violence against humans.

Pets who are the victims of non-accidental trauma or deliberate abuse and cruelty may be presented to the practice, but the true cause of the condition may remain hidden. One of the most common reasons that veterinarians may fail to identify this problem are that they have not been trained to recognize the warning signs of abuse or they do not believe it is a problem that they will ever encounter in their practices, so they are not looking for it. However, DeViney (1983) found that in pet owning households (in NJ) with a history of child abuse, utilization of veterinary services was consistent with the norms in the non-abusive population. Landau (1999) found that 87% of veterinarians who responded to a survey had treated abused patients; 50% saw 1-3 cases per year, 60% suspected they had treated animals who had been abused and 20% had clients they suspected were being abused. An Ohio State University study (Sharpe 1999) found the mean number of animal abuse cases seen per year was 5.6 per 1000 patients. Therefore, while it may easy to hide abuse from veterinarians by not bringing the animal in for care, it is a mistake to believe abused animals will not be seen in the average practice.

Many veterinarians also fail to recognize animal abuse because of the various ways it may be defined. (The terms abuse and cruelty are often used interchangeably.) Even though cruelty is defined by state laws and not the veterinarian, it can be useful to have a basic understanding of how the terms abuse, neglect and cruelty may be used as society evolves in its view of companion animals as family members. While a simple definition of abuse may be the "willful knowledge of failing to provide care, or awareness of doing something harmful", Vermeulen and Odendaal (1993) proposed a typology of physical abuse that includes passive neglect or ignorance as well as active maltreatment such as beating, burning, drowning, etc. The typology includes the lack of food, water, shelter, sanitation, necessary veterinary care to alleviate suffering, and general neglect, as well as categories for emotional abuse. Although neglect may seem benign and is sometimes defined as "unintentional lack of care that comes from ignorance", some states include it in their legal definition of cruelty, which makes it prosecutable. Finally, cruelty itself may be broadly regarded as "any act that, by intention or by neglect, causes unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal."

Veterinarians are mandated in some states to report cases of suspected abuse or animal fighting, and may suffer penalties for failure to do so. State laws vary and may require veterinarians to have suspicions, reasonable or direct knowledge, or know the cases in order to file a report. The AVMA position statement on reporting animal abuse is that "veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws or local ordinances. When these situations cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to the appropriate authorities. Disclosures may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate record keeping and documentation of these cases are invaluable." When deciding whether to file a report or educate, consideration should be given to the number, severity and duration of the problems. Good faith reports of suspicions of animal abuse should be filed based on the physical exam and history. The report only initiates the legal process and launches an investigation to uncover the facts. Veterinarians serve as the medical expert on a team that includes law enforcement, animal control officers, shelters, and prosecutors. It is important to remember that the final determination of cruelty is made a judge and jury, not the veterinarian. However, it is important for veterinarians to consider that their obligation to help ensure the safety and well being of animals may go beyond the statutory definition of cruelty and fall into the category of "educable" rather than "prosecutable" Veterinary hospitals should provide training and resources and develop policies for staff to follow whenever they have good faith suspicions that an animal has been abused. Veterinarians should be familiar with the veterinary practice act and anti -cruelty laws, and develop contacts with law enforcement and animal control or humane societies to help them manage these cases.

Veterinarians should be aware of the following warning signs that animals may be abused: 1) injuries that could not logically have occurred in the manner that the owner has described, 2) discrepancies or changes in the history, 3) lack of concern about the disposition of previous pets or their (in)ability to care for animals, 4) refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of a condition, provide treatment for or follow-up on treatment of painful conditions that cause suffering, 5) indifference about the cause of an injury, 6) constant parade of new animals, or 6) use of several veterinarians. A combination of the following physical signs of neglect in one animal or the presence of these signs in several animals may present cause for concern: 1) emaciation, 2) severely matted hair, 3) avulsed and ingrown nails, 4) multiple fractures or wounds in various stages of healing (characteristic of the " Battered Pet Syndrome"), 5) heavy parasite infestations, 6) collars that are embedded in the neck, 7) overall filth, or 8) bite wounds that are characteristic of dog fighting. Animals that present with problem behaviors such as the need for constant supervision, inappropriate elimination, aggression, noisiness, disobedience, or destructiveness are also at greater risk of being abused. It is important to consider the history along with the physical signs when determining whether non accidental injury (NAI) should be on the list of differentials.

Bestiality, or sexual contact with animals, deserves separate mention here because it is rarely discussed by veterinary professionals. Bestiality is one of the oldest and rarest forms of animal abuse. Kinsey found in 1953 that overall, 8% of the US male population surveyed admitted to having had sexual contact with animals. Some experts believe the percentage is much higher. Historically, sexual contact with animals has been punished in a wide variety of ways in various cultures, ranging from death to no punishment at all. Bestiality is not currently illegal in all states, but in many cases, the animal is injured or dies as a result of the encounter. Sexual assault of animals may occur in a variety of settings. It may be used to satisfy adolescent curiosity about sex, as a substitute for a human sexual partner or to control more vulnerable family members or children. Zoophilia is a term that is used for situations in which the person claims to be in a loving sexual relationship with the animal. According to the American Psychiatric Association, zoophilia is defined as a disorder of sexual preference. There are many Internet sites devoted to zoophilia and this activity certainly raises issues for professionals concerned with preserving the human animal bond to consider. Veterinarians should be aware of this activity and the warning signs because they will be responsible for analyzing the forensic evidence for confirmation of actual sexual contact with and/or cruelty to the animal. (For more information, the reader is referred to Helen Munro's article on sexual abuse of animals as part of the Battered Pet Syndrome (Munro 2001) or the textbook, Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty by Sinclair, Merck and Lockwood, 2006.)

Cross reporting and cross training of animal abuse involves inter agency cooperation when receiving and investigating reports of child, domestic, elder and animal abuse. Professionals who deal with family violence and child abuse are being trained to look at the condition and demeanor of the animals in the household when making a determination whether to report suspected child abuse. The same is true for veterinarians, who should assess the condition of children during an office visit when contemplating suspicions of animal abuse. (Colorado mandated veterinarians to report child abuse before they mandated reporting of animal abuse) Abused children or women may reveal information about both human and animal abuse to a veterinarian because of a comfort level with the role that veterinarians play as healers. Neighbors may be more likely to report animal abuse than child abuse because of a reluctance to get involved in family matters. Oddly enough, in many cases society has an even lower tolerance for animal abuse than for child abuse. Animal abuse cases often make national and headline news, with monetary awards posted for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. Cross training to report all forms of violence broadens the coverage that understaffed agencies can provide, results in the sharing of limited resources and takes advantage of training that is already available and easily adapted. The value of cross reporting and training is that it protects all members of society from violence. Women seeking shelter from domestic abuse may benefit from cross reporting that results in their animal being sheltered as well. Precedence has recently been set for awarding orders of protection for animals as well as humans. Many communities have model cross reporting programs in place.

Animal abuse and animal cruelty exist in a variety of forms, ranging from benign neglect to deliberate cruelty. The link between animal abuse and human violence is well documented and has been known for many years. The rising importance of the human animal bond and the growing acceptance of animals as family members, or at least as sentient creatures that feel pain and other emotions, is leading society to be less tolerant of practices that were acceptable just a few years ago. Veterinary medicine is seen as a care giving profession that is expected to take a leadership role in animal welfare issues by setting the highest standard for animal care. Veterinarians are the best-trained professionals to define pain and suffering in animals and, as efforts intensify to reduce the incidence of violence in our society, they are expected to play a unique and vital role in educating the public about appropriate pet care and to take appropriate action when education fails. Taking a stand on behalf of abused animals will not only further elevate the status of the profession, but it will help build bridges to community groups, improve the well-being of animals and save the lives of animals and humans. A multidisciplinary effort involving veterinarians, law enforcement and animal welfare groups is necessary if the goal of protecting animals and people from cruelty and violence is to ever be reached.

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