Personal and Professional Liability
The veterinarian must rely on his or her professional judgment in reporting suspected abuse to public authorities such as the police or animal welfare agencies. The goal of reporting is to initiate an investigation to determine the facts of the situation. Reporting in good faith means that a reasonable suspicion of abuse exists based on the historical findings and physical examination of the patient. A report that does not lead to charges may still have a positive impact on the situation.
Several provinces permit veterinarians to report suspected abuse (i.e. it is not considered a breach of confidentiality). In Quebec1 it is compulsory to report suspected abuse. In Newfoundland and Labrador large animal veterinarians (all government-appointed) are special constables who must report suspected abuse of livestock. While provincial veterinary legislation may permit you to report, it does not absolve you from potential liability if the accused person feels that his or her reputation has been compromised and you undertook the allegation in a cavalier way. Potential legal liability arises both in the context of court proceedings for defamation or in a complaint to the regulatory authority. It is crucial that your assessment be carefully documented and based upon sound veterinary judgment. Some states in the United States have dealt with this issue by providing the veterinarian with immunity from prosecution for criminal or civil defamation claims; in Canada, only in Alberta is immunity explicit for those who report suspected abuse (Alberta Animal Protection Act, 2006 ). It is highly unlikely that reports made in good faith would result in successful litigation, regardless of whether specific immunity has been granted. However, especially in the event that reporting suspected abuse becomes mandatory, it is important for the veterinary community to seek and obtain the same type of immunity from prosecution for good faith reporting.
For further discussion, see Jack, D “Good Samaritans”: A legislative solution for mandatory reporting of suspected abuse.
A veterinary surgeon shall report to the competent authorities when he ascertains that an animal has been the victim of mistreatment.
OMVQ, Code of ethics of veterinary surgeons, 1993