CVMA | Non-accidental Injury

Non-accidental Injury

These criteria are intended to help veterinarians to separate accidental from deliberate injury to animals. Generally, suspicions are raised by a combination of factors, such as features in the history; the behaviour of the client, other family members or the animal; and particular types of injuries. Remember that no single feature is diagnostic of abuse.

  • History inconsistent with the injury; unexplained injury.
    • With any traumatic injury, veterinarians should try to obtain a detailed history and not assume that animals are victims of motor vehicle accidents. This photograph shows injuries to a cat that could have been caused by a motor vehicle accident; however, the cause of this cat’s injuries was blunt intentional trauma.
  • Discrepant history (varies with person telling it).
  • Client or patient behaviour (eg., owner unconcerned about injuries, animal extremely fearful).
  • Fractures – skull, limb fractures; multiple fractures.
    • This radiograph shows fractured vertebrae as well as multiple rib fractures.
  • Multiple fractures in different stages of healing are a cardinal sign of non-accidental injury (“battered pet syndrome”). In the attached slide, the two top and left bottom photos show old healed fractures (evident callus formation), while the bottom right photo shows recent fractures.
  • Bruising – most frequently over thorax, abdomen, head/neck; linear bruising (consistent with having been beaten with a stick). Note that because of the animal’s hair coat, bruises are usually more easily detected at necropsy. In live animals, shaving of suspect areas may reveal bruising.
  • Repetitive injuries – old healed or untreated wounds, fractures as above. Owner may visit multiple veterinary clinics to avoid suspicion.
  • Burns and scalds – cigarette burns, burns of pads of 4 feet, caustic or chemical burns. There may be an odour associated with use of an accelerant (oil or chemicals). Scalds from pouring are likely to be over animal’s back or top of head.
  • Eye injuries – subconjunctival/scleral hemorrhages most commonly reported.
  • Internal thoracic and abdominal injuries – to diaphragm, liver, spleen, kidney or bladder; result of kicking or punching; may be severe or fatal; may not be recognized because there are no external signs.
  • Administration of drugs or poisons – stupor or bizarre behavioural signs.
  • Drowning – necropsy may show little besides animal being wet; body may show signs of forcible restraint during submersion.
  • Asphyxiation – crushing injury of trachea; edema of laryngeal region, lips, tongue and eyelids.
  • Miscellaneous – e.g, dislocation of the tail near the sacrum from swinging a cat by its tail; separation of scapula from underlying tissues if the animal has been swung by the forelimb(s); stab wounds or gunshot wounds.

For more information please see ‘Battered pets’: non-accidental physical injuries found in dogs and cats – Munro and Thrusfield, J Small Animal Practice 2001 42:279-290