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


Lockwood cites the ASPCA caseload for New York City, which shows 44 arrests for animal cruelty in the first four months of 2006 compared with 72 arrests for all of 2005. "If that holds," he says, "we will have over an 80% increase in arrests. We dealt with 4,150 reports last year and 1,400 in the first four months of this year, so that suggests only a slight rise in calls, but more of these calls involve serious cases that result in arrest."

Findings that point to abuse

Seeing an abused animal and recognizing abuse are two different things. Melinda D. Merck, DVM, a Roswell, Ga., small-animal practitioner, doubles as an animal abuse forensics expert. She has served as an expert witness; has coauthored the book Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty: A Guide for Veterinary and Law Enforcement Professionals, which is due out shortly from the Humane Society Press; and has created and maintained a Web site on animal forensics,

"You have to be able to wrap your mind around the possibility of abuse," Dr. Merck says. "For example, nobody wants to think of sexual assault of an animal, but it happens. This is no longer happy medicine."

Dr. Merck trained herself by reading textbooks on human forensics. She has watched Georgia's medical examiner perform autopsies of murder victims. The similarities between human forensics and animal forensics are strong, she says. She learned about gunshot trajectory, blood splatter, and forensic entomology.

In ordinary practice, veterinarians have little need for this type of expertise, but they do need to know more than they were taught in veterinary school. "Veterinarians have zero preparation to do forensics," she says. "That's one reason they don't want to take these cases on."

In fact, veterinarians have only a smattering of training specifically in recognizing animal abuse. In a study of 31 veterinary colleges, nearly all respondents thought veterinarians would eventually encounter animal abuse in their careers, and three out of four schools said they address the issue in the curriculum.11 But only one in three had a hospital policy for reporting suspected abuse, and only 17% made students explicitly aware of the policy. And, the study showed, students spent an average of only 76 minutes on animal abuse across the curriculum and only eight minutes on the possibility that a client may be abused.

What should a veterinarian look for in the examination room? Dr. Merck says much of the investigation is common sense. "Know your species, know what they normally do," she says. "A lot of it is what we do in the exam room anyway. Pull all the clues together."

Asking the right questions

According to Dr. Merck, when taking a history and evaluating a patient be suspicious of abuse when

  • The history or the environment doesn't match the signs or the physical examination findings don't correspond to the injuries identified
  • The client changes his or her story
  • The client has inappropriate reactions (e.g. lack of concern) to the animal's condition or your questions
  • The client has delayed seeking veterinary treatment.12

Lila Miller, DVM, vice president, and Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, senior vice president, ASPCA Animal Sciences, suggest additional questions to ask in taking the history13 :

  • What is the condition of other animals in the household?
  • Has a veterinarian ever treated this animal for similar injuries?
  • Has the animal ever been presented to the local shelter before and why?
  • Are there any known toxins in the surrounding area?
  • Do strangers, including children, have access to the animal?


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