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


Is reporting always the best course of action?

Dr. Patronek worries that focusing on reporting abuse, and particularly on proving abuse in court, may actually discourage veterinarians from getting involved or may alienate clients who could be helped. "Who we serve, the client or the pet, is not an easy thing to answer sometimes," he says. "Abused animals that are brought to you are probably being somewhat cared for. I wouldn't want to alienate these clients because at least they are bringing the animals to you. In some cases, you might be in a position to do a lot more by taking the counselor-and-educator approach."

Neglect (e.g. lack of exercise or socialization) and harsh training methods are likely much more common than deliberate abuse, says Dr. Patronek. In cases in which the abuse isn't willful, the owners may be more amenable to counseling and education.

Dr. Patronek thinks that veterinarians can also serve as a force in the community, educating community leaders, defining neglect, and working for better laws. Rollin sees defining the more subtle areas of distress and neglect as a next step for veterinarians to create better societal expectations for animals. What a community will tolerate in the treatment of its animals defines the community, Rollin says.2

Additional resources on animal abuse and reporting
When he lectures worldwide, Lockwood finds veterinarians enthusiastic about learning the latest research on animal abuse. "One of the most common responses I get when I lecture," he says, "comes from the veterinarians who share stories that nag at them now, where now that they see things in a different light they know they would have done things differently."

The evolving law of animal abuse

Laws regarding animal abuse vary from state to state. Ambiguity about what constitutes abuse is one of the problems in animal cruelty law, according to Lockwood, who says cruelty and even animal are defined differently across states. One of his charges in his new position as the ASPCA's senior vice president for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Training is to foster standardization of these terms nationwide.

"The term [cruelty to animals] is used generically to describe a broad range of mistreatment, from a temporary lapse in providing proper care to malicious torture or killing of an animal," says Lockwood.15 Exemptions from cruelty laws further complicate the landscape, he says, citing an Alabama law allowing for "shooting a dog or cat with a BB gun for defecating/urinating on property" and Indiana's exemption for "discipline."15

Further addressing veterinarians' concerns that abuse or cruelty is not well-defined, Dr. Miller emphasizes that statutes define cruelty and trials determine guilt, not veterinarians.

Lockwood sees seven broad categories emerging in animal abuse legislation15 :

  • Simple neglect
  • Gross, willful, cruel, or malicious neglect, such as intentionally withholding food from an animal
  • Animal hoarding
  • Intentional abuse and torture
  • Organized abuse such as dog fighting
  • Ritual abuse
  • Sexual abuse

Generally, laws regarding animal abuse are moving in three directions: toward requirements to report animal abuse; toward immunity for veterinarians who, in good faith, report abuse; and toward establishing and stiffening penalties for animal abuse, including making some offenses felonies. Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD, president of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc., thinks two groups in society are driving the evolution of animal abuse law: groups responsive to the possible connection between animal abuse and human abuse and animal protection groups who argue that animals are sentient beings that feel pain and should be treated humanely.

Whether veterinarians are required to report abuse or are immune from damages if they are wrong, Dr. Lacroix, who lectures frequently on veterinary medicine and the law, says veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to report. "Veterinarians should do it because it is the right thing to do," she says.

Table 3 States in Which Veterinarians Must Report Animal Abuse*
As of August 2004, 11 states offered some form of immunity for reporting animal abuse, while eight states required veterinarians to report their suspicions about animal abuse (Table 3).16


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