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Animal Abuse

What is our role as veterinarians in abuse? As experts in animal care, we must be able to distinguish cases of abuse and intervene where appropriate for the health and welfare of the animal. Regardless of whether reporting of abuse is required by the state, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) “considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report suspected cases of animal abuse when an educational approach is inappropriate”.

Abuse is defined legally as “to inflict physical or emotional mistreatment or injury on purposely or through negligence or neglect…” by the Merriam Webster dictionary. As the definition points out, abuse may present in different forms and can be passive or intentional. A client may be completely unaware that their actions, or lack thereof, are considered abuse. Or just the opposite, and they are lying about why their pet is injured.  Here, the focus will be on neglect versus purposeful, physical abuse. Emotional abuse, dog fighting, and hoarding are other forms of abuse as well.

Neglect is the type of abuse most frequently seen in veterinary practice. Indiana law describes neglect as: failing to provide the animal food or drink, failing to provide proper care or not seeking necessary veterinary care, leaving an animal outside in excessive hot or cold temperatures without providing shelter against the elements, and restraining an animal in a manner that endangers an animal’s health or life.

Neglected animals are commonly brought in to see a veterinarian just like other animals, and many of these clients are completely unaware of their failure to provide adequate care. Although there are no definitive, clear signs, animals that are victims of neglect may exhibit the following:

  • Significantly underweight, low body condition score (BCS)
  • Dehydrated, tacky mucous membranes, skin tenting
  • Matted, ill-kept coat and/or overgrown nails
  • Illness or injury requiring medical care, but for which medical care is not sought

Clients of neglected animals may be either unaware or ignorant of their actions. They may not realize that their animal is in poor condition. This is an opportunity to potentially educate the client on basic standards of care for their animal. This can be as simple as explaining what it means to provide adequate food, water, shelter, grooming, etc. After going over this information, create an action plan for the client to follow with simple steps. This will help to tackle welfare concerns right away. In addition, be sure to schedule a follow up visit for re-evaluation. However, it is still important to keep and maintain thorough medical records if the client does not follow through on the action plan and the animal’s condition does not improve.

Physical abuse is much less common and rarely seen, compared to neglect. Although unlikely, it is possible to encounter a scenario that suggests an animal is being intentionally harmed. Indications that may lead to suspicion of physical abuse include, but not limited to:

  • Inconsistent history, or history contains discrepancies that may or may not match the animal’s injuries
  • Old injuries or repetitive injuries in the same animal; rib injuries
  • Animal shows behavioral changes that seem unrelated to any medical conditions, such as overly aggressive or submissive, or they may also be afraid of owner
  • High turnover of pets

In a situation where physical abuse is suspected, it is not recommended to confront the client, since this may lead to further harm towards the animal or other people in the family after leaving the clinic. Instead, create and maintain thorough medical records of all your findings. Be sure to include as much information as possible about the client, location of the animal(s), history presented, and details that led to the suspicion of abuse. Collect and document any evidence that may point to physical abuse, taking photos if possible, then report your findings accordingly.

In Indiana, veterinarians or registered veterinary technicians may report animal abuse by contacting local law enforcement and/or animal control. In instances of abuse concerning livestock or poultry, the Indiana Board of Animal Health may also be contacted. Policies and procedures may vary depending on location, so it is important to contact these parties in advance to determine proper actions to take when abuse is suspected. According to Indiana Code, “a veterinarian or registered veterinary technician who reports in good faith and in the normal course of business a suspected incident of animal cruelty under IC 35-46-3 to a law enforcement officer is immune from liability in any civil or criminal action brought for reporting the incident.”

While encountering suspected abuse can be a tough situation, early intervention or reporting when appropriate, can prevent further harm to the animal(s) involved. As veterinarians, it is our job to intervene in these circumstances to protect animals from further maltreatment, and hopefully prevent future instances of abuse.

For more information on recognizing and reporting animal abuse, please visit the AVMA’s online animal abuse resource “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse, and Neglect”.