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


Dr. Patronek adds a question veterinarians might ask to open the door for discussion of domestic violence: Is there any member of the family who feels unsafe in the house? He admits, however, that initiating such a discussion is probably more difficult socially than it seems. He thinks veterinarians could use some coaching on how to turn suspicions about animal abuse into discussions that might reveal intimate partner violence or child abuse. Health professionals working with domestic violence prevention groups could likely offer such advice.

Dr. Levitzke isn't uncomfortable bringing up suspected animal abuse with clients. He says he goes on gut feeling when presented with a case he thinks might be abuse. And he always errs on the side of caution—caution for the animal's welfare.

He is not, he says, reluctant to ask difficult questions about how an animal sustained an injury. "If they're telling the truth about the injury, I figure they will appreciate the fact that I asked and that I care about their animals," he says. "If they're lying, then so be it."

In the case of the Yorkie with severe fractures, Dr. Levitzke pulled the owner aside and began asking questions "in baby steps." Until he knew more, Dr. Levitzke hoped to not alienate the client who had brought the animal to a caregiver. In particular, he didn't want the owner to remove the animal from the hospital before the police arrived. First, Dr. Levitzke asked for the owner's side of the story. "The owner seemed caring and he said he was unsure of what happened," Dr. Levitzke says. "So I tried to offer potential scenarios—maybe one of the children accidentally slammed the dog's head in a door. The owner denied having any knowledge over and over again. Now the interrogation will be done by the police."

Examination findings

"The biggest physical sign that should raise suspicions is blunt force injury," Dr. Merck says. "Be especially suspicious of those that result in fractures in an animal that is in a contained or protected environment.

"The injuries that are warning signals in children are similar to those in animals. The most diagnostic finding is multiple injuries in different stages of healing, indicating repetitive injury over a period of time."

Table 1 Clinical Signs of Animal Abuse*
See Table 1 for a listing of signs of animal abuse adapted from both Ontario Veterinary College's and the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital's policies for reporting suspected abuse. The University of Pennsylvania's policy says that abuse or neglect can be by omission or commission or because animals are being used in staged fights. The policy states: "Often a determination of suspected animal abuse or neglect is an educated guess and may be based on a pattern of activity over time involving specific clients."14

Dr. Miller adds that animals with behavior problems (e.g. excessive barking, disobedience, destructive behavior, inappropriate elimination) are at a higher risk for abuse.

What to do if you suspect abuse

From a practitioner's perspective, Dr. Merck recognizes two potential stumbling blocks to reporting animal abuse: Veterinarians may be afraid of retribution, and they may be afraid of losing clients. But Dr. Merck says, "I've never heard of retribution. In a case that goes to trial, whether you're an expert witness or the reporting veterinarian, many people are involved in the case—the prosecutor, the judge, the detective who put the handcuffs on. So you're not going to be the only target they could focus on.

"And, if you're worried about the client getting upset," she says, "well, I don't mind losing the client who committed the cruelty or who stays with the abuser. My job is to protect the animal in that home."

Dr. Merck doesn't want to be nagged by a case she didn't pursue. "The victims are mute, and we are their only advocates," she says. "Without us, there will never be justice and the violence will continue absolutely."


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