In Good Faith
It is veterinarians' sole purpose to ensure the wellbeing of pets, but what if you suspect intentional abuse? All veterinarians should be protected.
The end of 2019 saw the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act pass into law. This law filled in crucial gaps from the previous national law, which only really banned animal fighting. All states previously had provisions against animal cruelty, but this federal ban made it easier to prosecute cases that span different jurisdictions or that occur in airports, military bases, and other places under federal purview. However, we know that this is only part of the story. To be prosecuted, the crime needs to be reported. And to be reported, the witness needs to be protected.
During the COVID-19 pandemic we heard of the horrendous increases in domestic abuse cases, which have been associated with stay-at-home orders. There’s no doubt in my mind that these cases are under-reported, and that the under-reporting of animal abuse cases during this pandemic is equally high. As our profession’s contact with pet owners has literally distanced, it will be harder to pick up on suspicious events. However, if we are to suspect abuse, shouldn’t we feel protected to make a report? Our protection varies state by state. Only 18 states have mandatory reporting laws, with the majority of states left with no laws regarding reporting (12) or laws regarding reporting but none that make it mandatory (20).1 The states that have immunity laws for reporting veterinarians are even fewer.
“More often than not, what animals require our protection from is not hurricanes or fires, but abuse at the hands of other people.” — Julie Klam
The Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association successfully secured full house and senate approval of its veterinary immunity bill, which will go into effect in August. The bill provides immunity to veterinarians when reporting a suspected incident of animal cruelty. The new law states that a licensed veterinarian acting in good faith and in the normal course of business is immune from civil and criminal liability.2 If not mandated by the state, we as veterinarians are strongly encouraged to report suspected cruelty under the Principles of Veterinary Ethics, but this legislation takes a major step forward and provides protection under the law to prevent veterinarians from being sued when they report suspected abuse. Iowa is pursuing a similar bill, but it is high time that all states follow suit.
It is obvious and intuitive that the AVMA would support this. The AVMA Model Veterinary Practice Act (MVPA), most recently approved in August 2019, actually provides language on immunity for veterinarians reporting suspected abuse and could be used to help draft changes in individual state laws. The MVPA is intended to serve as a set of guiding principles for those who are now, or will be, preparing or revising a practice act under the codes and laws of an individual state. As a profession we should be protected while serving the voiceless, but there is still some distance to go.
AVMA’s Animal Abuse Resources for Veterinarians
The Model Veterinary Practice Act
- Abuse reporting requirements by state. avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-welfare/abuse-reporting-requirements-state. Accessed May 2020.
- S.F. No. 1517 – Veterinary Immunity from Civil and Criminal Liability (1st Engrossment). senate.mn/departments/scr/billsumm/summary_display_from_db.php?ls=91&id=7130. Accessed May 2020.