Animal abuse: What practitioners need to know - Veterinary Medicine
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Animal abuse: What practitioners need to know


In Ascione's oft-cited 1997 survey of one large domestic violence agency in every state, more than 80% of the shelter directors reported that women sometimes talked about their abusers also abusing animals in the household, and 60% reported that the women's children talked about witnessing animal abuse.8 Those numbers are probably more surprising because only one of every three shelters included a question about animal abuse as part of its intake inventory or other formal communication. In other words, these women and children were often volunteering information about abuse of their pets without prompts.

"This confirmed my suspicion that pet abuse was another form of family violence to which children might be exposed," Ascione writes. "The most basic question I had—how often do women who are battered report that pets are threatened or abused?—did not, at that time, have an answer."9

When their pets are safe, battered women are likelier to seek shelter
In more recent studies, researchers have interviewed more than 700 women who were victims of intimate partner violence about animal abuse in their homes. In these studies, Ascione reports, 11.8% to 39.4% of the women interviewed acknowledged threats to their animals.9 "More disturbing are the data on actual harm or the killing of pets," Ascione writes, noting that these studies also show that one in four to more than three in four women reported that her abuser made good on a threat resulting in either actual harm or the death of a pet (see boxed text "When their pets are safe, battered women are likelier to seek shelter").9

"We now know that animal abuse is associated with interpersonal violence," Ascione says. "And we know that children who are exposed to domestic violence are more likely to commit animal abuse."

Ascione thinks the first step in confronting the tie between animal abuse and interpersonal violence begins with all veterinarians identifying themselves as healthcare professionals who deal with human health as well as animal health. Veterinarians already act in this way, for example, when they suggest which pets are best for which people and when they help clients work through grief after the loss of a pet. "Veterinarians are already involved in these human health issues," he says.

"This doesn't mean we have to train veterinarians to be police officers or social workers," he adds. "But the best advice I can give a veterinarian is to find out who in the community oversees child welfare issues, who is in charge of domestic violence issues, who runs the women's shelters, and who investigates animal abuse. Just getting connected in the community is a good initial move."

The prevalence of animal abuse

Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, clinical assistant professor of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, was one of the first researchers to wonder about the reporting of animal mistreatment cases by veterinarians. His 1997 survey of complaints of animal abuse in Massachusetts and experiences of Massachusetts veterinarians turned up two particularly interesting results—while 78.9% of veterinarians surveyed reported seeing at least one case of animal abuse, just a handful, 16.4%, thought they had seen as many as five cases in their careers.10

Such a low frequency of reports of multiple cases could signal a low frequency of animal abuse, although the same study also stated that nearly 5,000 complaints of animal mistreatment were reported in 1996 in Massachusetts; of these cases, 37% were found to be violations of the law.10

Another reason for the low frequency of reports from veterinarians seeing multiple cases may be that most abused animals aren't presented to veterinarians for examination. Abused children usually must go someplace where they interact with others, including schools, pediatricians' offices, and hospital emergency rooms, but an animal abuser is probably less likely to bring a pet to a veterinarian.

However, the research results are mixed on the prevalence of animal abuse. For example, one researcher reported that 87% of 15 veterinary practices surveyed in Indiana indicated that they had treated mildly abused animal patients, and 50% said that they had treated one to three mildly abused animals a year.11 The number of cases of animal abuse seen likely varies widely by practice, says Dr. Patronek.


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