Responsibility of Veterinary Professionals in Addressing Animal Abuse and Neglect
February 7, 2018
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) holds that veterinary professionals, including veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists/technicians, have a duty to protect the health and welfare of animals. This includes addressing any and all first-hand observations leading to suspicion of animal abuse and/or neglect. This includes, but is not limited to, reporting of suspected abuse to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Depending on the jurisdiction in which he or she practices, a veterinarian may or may not have a legal obligation to report suspected abuse or neglect and may or may not be immune from liability resulting from reporting in good faith.
- Veterinarians play an important role in educating their clients about humane animal care, which can prevent or interrupt the occurrence of animal abuse or neglect.
- Veterinarians have an ethical duty to address suspected animal abuse or neglect, up to and including reporting to authorities.
- Veterinarians should verify reporting requirements and protection from liability within their jurisdiction, and be aware if these apply to non-veterinarian coworkers.
- There is overwhelming evidence of a link between abuse of animals and violence towards people. Veterinarians may play an important role in identifying those who may be victims of abuse in conjunction with animal abuse.
- The CVMA encourages cross-reporting between family services agencies and appropriate law enforcement authorities for the benefit of both people and animals.
- Examples of animal abuse can include, but are not limited to, malicious or inappropriate infliction of physical injury (e.g., blunt force trauma, stabbing, inhumane shooting), sexual abuse, mental abuse (e.g., a deliberate action that results in the induction of a negative emotional or psychological state, such as fear, distress, or depression), poisoning (using non-approved products), asphyxia (e.g., strangulation), drowning, and enabling animal fighting (1).
- Animal neglect, (whether intentional or unintentional) is most commonly associated with acts of omission to provide appropriate animal care, such as can be seen with hoarding, and in cases of animal abandonment. Personal challenges affecting owners such as financial hardship, mental health disorders, and physical impairment can be significant factors resulting in animal neglect. Neglect includes failing to provide animals with adequate basic necessities supporting health and well-being (food and water, medical attention when wounded or ill, protection from injurious weather, adequate space, sanitary housing, ventilation and lighting, opportunity for exercise, and a stimulating social environment that prevents the induction of a negative emotional or psychological state) (2).
- Veterinary client education covers a wide range of topics. For example, veterinarians may be asked to speak in their local communities regarding humane aspects of animal care. Such educational efforts could be aimed in part at preventing conditions that could affect animal welfare. Topics might include, for example, the importance of routine dental care; nutritional and exercise advice to promote healthy body weight and overall well-being; and appropriate vaccination and parasite control programs. Advice on proactive end of life planning may be beneficial to owners especially when provided before presenting an animal to a veterinarian in a state of suffering. This may be most relevant in situations in which animals have been diagnosed with progressive incurable disease. Instructing clients on the recognition of signs of pain and appropriate pain management strategies is also an important component of humane animal care. Educating clients on the importance of humane care and appropriate client-patient follow-up can help prevent or avoid situations that might lead to suspicions of abusive or neglectful behavior, thus avoiding the need to contact animal welfare enforcement authorities.
- Nationally recognized codes of practice and standards, and guidelines for care and handling of various types and species of animals can be valuable references to inform clients about accepted practice standards for animal care (3,4).
- As frontline professionals with a duty of care, veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists/technicians need to address, first hand, eye witness observations of suspected animal abuse or neglect (5). Addressing abuse or neglect could include, but is not limited to, directly protecting the animal, intervening to prevent abuse or neglect, or reporting suspected abuse or neglect to legal authorities. An ethical obligation to report animal abuse is not necessarily the same as a legal obligation to do so. A veterinarian’s legal requirement to report suspected animal abuse, or provision of immunity from liability for acting in good faith, lies within the jurisdiction of the province or territory within which he or she is licensed to practice (6). The CVMA does not condone behavior on the part of veterinarians, real or perceived, that could be interpreted as a threat to report an owner for animal abuse or neglect solely for the purpose of having the owner comply with animal care recommendations, or for the financial gain of the veterinarian.
- The determination of whether a reported concern of animal abuse or neglect is indeed in violation of animal welfare laws is not the duty of the person who reported the concern; rather it is the responsibility of the relevant animal welfare enforcement authority. As a result of reporting an animal welfare concern, veterinary professionals may, however, be asked to provide evidence to authorities to aid in determining whether a violation actually occurred.
- Veterinarians who suspect that an animal is being abused or neglected should immediately report their concerns to the appropriate animal welfare enforcement authorities in their jurisdiction. Such agencies vary by province or territory and may include government agencies, humane societies, or police. Veterinary clinics should post the name and phone number of the appropriate animal welfare law enforcement authorities in their area for quick reference by staff members (7).
- The content within municipal or provincial animal welfare law varies from one province to another. Each province operates independently of the other when enforcing their local animal welfare laws. Federal animal cruelty legislation is enforced by police officers and/or peace officers authorized to enforce the Criminal Code of Canada. Veterinary professionals should familiarize themselves with what constitutes animal abuse under the relevant animal welfare legislation in their location of practice.
- Provincial animal welfare legislation that obliges veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse may also mandate veterinarians to provide medical records relevant to their concerns (5). Veterinarians should confirm with the appropriate animal welfare enforcement authority and veterinary statutory body whether mandated reporting exists in their province of practice, and what those reporting requirements include. Veterinarians should also confirm what provisions exist to provide immunity for reporting in good faith, regarding confidentiality when reporting, and applicability of local privacy laws when reporting animal welfare concerns.
- Concerns for safety of veterinary staff as a consequence of reporting suspected animal abuse or neglect can be mitigated by being aware of and posting in prominent locations the names and contact information for local police, and training staff to address confrontational or threatening situations. Policies and procedures regarding confidentiality and privacy laws under which animal welfare enforcement authorities operate may protect the identity of veterinary professionals when reporting an animal welfare concern.
- There is overwhelming evidence of a link between abuse of animals and violence towards people, especially other members of the family such as children, spouses, and elders. Veterinary reporting of suspected animal abuse may play an important role in breaking the cycles of violence in communities (8-11).
- Veterinarians acting as “Good Samaritans” can play an important role in identifying people who may be victims of abuse or neglect, as they may witness animals presented for illness or injury by clients (or friends/family of those clients) that are themselves showing physical signs of abuse or neglect. Each province and territory differs in regard to whether local laws exist mandating members of the public to report if they suspect a child is in need of protection due to potential abuse or neglect. Veterinarians are encouraged to contact their local family services agency to confirm if reporting is mandated in their province or territory. The CVMA encourages cross-reporting between family services agencies and appropriate law enforcement authorities regarding concerns of animal and human abuse or neglect occurring concurrently.
- Veterinarians are respected in the community, and as experts in animal health, may be subpoenaed to testify in a court of law regarding cases of suspected animal abuse or neglect. The CVMA supports full cooperation by veterinarians in such situations.
- The CVMA encourages all veterinary statutory bodies to work with provincial or territorial governments to support the development of legislation requiring veterinarians to report animal abuse, and to provide immunity to veterinarians who do so in good faith using their best professional judgement.
- Veterinarians and veterinary technologists/ technicians, teaching institutions, and provincial veterinary associations are encouraged to include information on the recognition, documentation, management, and reporting of animal abuse in their curricula and continuing education programs to improve animal protection (7).
- Ensuring the welfare of animals is a priority for the CVMA. The CVMA does not condone any form of animal abuse or neglect and in this regard, veterinary professionals, given their professional responsibilities, should be held to a higher standard of care than members of the general public. Any concerns of potential animal abuse or neglect witnessed by veterinary professionals should be promptly reported to the appropriate animal welfare enforcement authority and the relevant provincial veterinary statutory body.
- Vermeulen H, Odendaal JSJ. Proposed typology of companion animal abuse. Anthrozoös 1993;6:248-257. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/089279393787002178 Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Lockwood R, Arkow P. Animal abuse and interpersonal violence: The cruelty connection and its implications for veterinary pathology. Vet Pathol 2016;53:910-918. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26936222 Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- National Farm Animal Care Council. Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals. Available from: http://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- CVMA Code of Practice for Canadian Kennel Operations 2007. Available from: https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/news-events/news/Code-of-Practice-for-Canadian-Kennel-Operations Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- American Veterinary Medical Association. Practical guidance for the effective response by veterinarians to suspected animal cruelty, abuse and neglect. Available from: https://ebusiness.avma.org/Files/ProductDownloads/AVMA%20Suspected%20Animal%20Cruelty.pdf Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Animal Legal Defense Fund. 2016 Canadian animal protection laws rankings. Available from: http://aldf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/2016-Canadian-Rankings-Report.pdf Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Marion C. Veterinary reporting of animal welfare concerns. Can Vet J 2015;56:879-881. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4502861/ Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada. Available from: https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/15991/index.do Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Ascione FR, Arkow P, eds. Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse. Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. West Lafayettee, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1999. Available from: https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/4092053 Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Cook A. Effective Veterinary Response to Animal Abuse. Poster and presentation for the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre, CVMA, UPEI, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Available from: http://files.upei.ca/avc/sjdawc/effective_veterinary_response_to_animal_abuse_handout.pdf Last accessed May 12, 2017.
- Merck MD. Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations. 2nd ed. Ames, Iowa: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013:1-16. Available from: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15928611-veterinary-forensics Last accessed April 13, 2017.
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Animal Abuse. Available from: https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/policy-advocacy/animal-abuse Last accessed April 13, 2017.
((Revised October 2017))