Poll: Have You Ever Suspected a Pet Owner of Animal Abuse?
Only a handful of states mandate reporting of animal abuse when a veterinarian suspects abuse of mistreatment; some states have voluntary mandates in place and still others are completely silent on the issue.
Complicating this matter, states vary according to whether they offer immunity to veterinarians from liability in any civil, criminal or state licensing actions.
“Because each state, county, and city may have a different reporting agency, it is important to identify your local agency ahead of time,” recommends Dr. Melinda Merck, owner of Veterinary Forensics Consulting in Austin, Texas. Dr. Merck reported on a veterinarian’s moral obligations in the article “When Abuse Darkens Your Door,” published in the July/August 2013 issue of Today’s Veterinary Practice. “Ideally, invite the cruelty investigator and prosecutor to your hospital to discuss appropriate procedures should an animal cruelty case present. They can help you develop a Standard Operating Procedure for handling animal abuse cases.”
Following the recent vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act (H.R. 724/S. 479), we asked our Facebook audience, “Have you ever suspected a pet owner of animal abuse?” Of the 159 respondents, a staggering 71% answered “yes”:
Have you ever suspected a pet owner of animal abuse?
PACT would outlaw the inhumane act of animal crushing, which is currently often performed and filmed for profit. Next, the bill will head to the Senate for consideration.
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) President Dr. John Howe released the following statement in response to the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives:
“Today’s passage of the PACT Act is an important step toward improving animal welfare by criminalizing the cruel and inhumane act of animal crushing. This legislation also provides key safeguards to ensure enforcement correctly targets bad actors without incidentally ensnaring farmers and ranchers, hunters, researchers, or other groups. AVMA looks forward to working with the Senate to advance this bill.”
According to the Humane Society of the United States, “The shocking number of animal cruelty cases reported every day is just the tip of the iceberg — most cases are never reported. Unlike violent crimes against people, cases of animal abuse are not compiled by state or federal agencies, making it difficult to calculate just how common they are.”
With state laws varying, what can veterinarians do? As Dr. Merck notes, the question becomes: “If not you, then who?” In addition to saving the animal’s life, Dr. Merck says, you may be saving a human life as well.
“Animal cruelty is often a ‘sentinel act,’” she notes. Numerous studies have shown than an act of animal abuse “is associated with domestic violence or child abuse (this happens in 70% to 90% of cases).”
Signs of Animal Abuse, Neglect or Cruelty
The following five signs may indicate that your patient is being mistreated by its owner.
1) Does the pet have poor body condition and/or noticeable trauma? Does the animal have a filthy coat, open sores or wounds, or broken bones?
2) Is the animal underweight?
3) Does it appear that the animal has been tied or chained for a long period of time, such as an infected area on its neck?
4) Is the animal’s behavior abnormal? Is it very aggressive or severely shy, such as cowering, hiding, fear-biting, even with or especially with her owner?
5) Do you suspect the owner of hoarding animals?
What Steps Should You Take?
1) Be prepared. Most municipalities have a local animal control department, or animal shelter or humane society that is responsible for cruelty investigations. Make sure you have their contact information on hand in your practice.
2) Document the signs of abuse. When you report the abuse to the appropriate agency, include as many details as you can.
3) Report the abuse. Veterinarians should report abuse as soon as they suspect it, which allows the appropriate authorities to investigate. Do not confront the abuser — “confrontation can lead to dangerous situations for the veterinarian, animals, veterinary staff, other victims in the family, and other clients,” advises Dr. Merck.
Resources for Veterinarians
The AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division with the assistance of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) have developed protocols and response plans for handling suspected animal abuse cases.