CVMA | Recognizing Animal Abuse

Recognizing Animal Abuse

Animal abuse includes physical abuse (non-accidental injury), sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and staging animal fights, with the majority of abuse arising from neglect.

Veterinarians are well-trained in proper animal husbandry, and well-equipped to recognize substandard care. It is crucial that veterinarians in practice be alert to the possibility of abuse and respond effectively when it is suspected, both to protect the animal from further abuse and because the violence may be a sentinel for other violence occurring within the family.

Ways a veterinarian may be presented with an abused animal

  • The animal is brought in by the owner or another family member, one of whom may be the abuser.
  • The animal is brought in by someone else - Good Samaritan, law enforcement or humane agency.
  • A veterinarian may be requested by humane authorities to conduct an on-site assessment of a farm or breeding facility.
  • A veterinarian may witness abuse.
  • A veterinarian may become aware of abusive training practices.

Warning signs of possible abuse

Generally, suspicions are raised by a combination of factors, such as features in the history; the behaviour of the client, other family or the animal; and particular types of injuries. Remember that no single feature is diagnostic of abuse.


  • The history is vague; the owner can’t or won’t tell you how the injuries occurred.
  • The history doesn’t fit with the injuries (eg. “dog fell off bed” to explain fractures).
  • Comments by other family members, including children, may give conflicting information about how the injuries happened.
  • The spouse or a child may confide to the veterinarian or a staff member about what happened to the animal, or about what is happening in the home.
  • There may be a history of previous pets that disappeared or died at a young age (often < 2 years).
  • The owner may visit multiple veterinarians over time in an attempt to conceal the number of injuries.

Suspicious injuries

Obvious signs of neglect

Client behaviour

  • The owner appears unconcerned, or there has been a delay in seeking treatment (eg. injuries clearly several days old in a breed used for dog-fighting).
  • There is a lack of concern about serious problems, or failure to follow up on necessary medical treatments.

Patient behaviour

  • Behavioural problems including aggression and submissiveness may be associated with abuse.
  • The animal may be poorly socialized to other animals or people, or appear extremely fearful.

For further information, see ‘Battered pets’: features that raise suspicion of non-accidental injury – Munro and Thrusfield, J Small Animal Practice 2001 42:218-226