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How to Recognize Animal Abuse

And knowing when to intervene as a veterinary professional.

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Animal cruelty is an unfortunate, horrific reality involving innocent beings that are unable to speak up for themselves. Veterinary professionals have a moral, ethical and, in some states, legal obligation to be the voice for these victims.

Animal cruelty is a catchall statement for offenses that include neglect, abuse, abandonment, animal fighting and even practicing veterinary medicine without a license. State laws vary in whether animal cruelty is deemed a misdemeanor or a felony, and they even go so far as to detail which animals are included. For example, New York laws cover “every living creature except a human being,” while in Alaska, protected animals include vertebrates but not fish.

Veterinarian’s Obligation 

Several states have laws in place that address the issue of veterinarians reporting suspected animal cruelty and abuse. These include Arizona, which outlines a veterinarian’s duty to report suspected canine participants of dog fighting. Oregon makes it mandatory for veterinarians to report aggravated animal abuse. Additionally, Kansas requires veterinarians to report cruel or inhumane treatment, and failure to do so could result in disciplinary action.

Because laws vary from state to state, it’s vital that veterinarians review local and state animal cruelty laws.

A veterinarian’s role in animal cruelty cases is to be the medical expert and not the prosecutor, judge and jury. Thomas Skadron, DVM, owner of Skadron Animal Hospital in West St. Paul, Minn., and a Veterinary Hospitals Association board member, had a suspected cruelty case in which local law enforcement asked that he get involved.

“The dog that came in had a broken femur, and we donated the fracture repair via intramedullary pin as opposed to amputation or euthanasia,” he said. “In this case, it meant the difference between being treated and not being treated.”

Identifying Cruelty 

In some cases, cruelty is obvious because of the type of injuries suffered. Others are subtle and characterized as behavior issues.

  • Neglect: Signs may be seen not only in the pet but in the owner’s behavior as well. The client might exhibit a lack of concern for the animal’s welfare, refuse treatment, workups or grooming, or decline euthanasia. The animal might present with a poor body condition or severely matted fur, or it may have indications of being left unattended and continually chained up. These animals might not have access to adequate shelter, food or water, and the owner may have an excessive number of animals. 
  • Hoarding: Animals kept in hoarding-like conditions often are seen for trauma or preventable contagious and parasitic diseases. The owner may visit several clinics so as to not raise suspicion. A veterinarian may want to check with nearby practitioners to see whether the same owner is arriving with different patients. 
  • Dog fighting: Animals used in dog fighting have characteristic bite and scar patterns in sensitive areas, including the head, neck and legs. Owners may try to treat the injuries themselves, and they may be reluctant to explain how the animal was hurt. The animal might be missing body parts, such as an ear or tail. 
  • Intentional injuries: Deliberate harm is inflicted on an animal when an owner or someone else intentionally causes pain or injury. The pet comes in with injuries not consistent with its history, or the injuries are too severe to support the client’s story. The pet may display abnormal behaviors such as relaxing when the owner is out of the room or shying away from the client. 
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It’s important to keep in mind that good Samaritans exist. These individuals may find a neglected, abandoned or wounded animal and bring it to the clinic.

Justine Lee, DVM, Dipl. ACVECC, Dipl. ABT, of Animal Emergency and Referral Center of Minnesota and the CEO and founder of VETgirl, recalled a disturbing case:

“An emaciated pit bull, who normally should have weighed 50 to 55 pounds, was brought in. This dog weighed less than 30 pounds. It was obvious animal cruelty, and I was thankful it was a neighbor that physically brought the dog and owner in and had the owner surrender the dog to us to address its medical needs. We were able to find a foster and rescue organization to care for the dog, allowing it to be rehomed.”

What Can You Do? 

Clinic owners should have an animal cruelty plan in place, and the team should be fully trained on standard operating procedures.

  • Know your local and state laws. Each state is different, including whether suspected animal cruelty must be reported and if veterinarians are offered any protection.
  • Know who needs to be contacted—whether local law enforcement or animal control—and the specific individuals within those organizations.
  • Establish an in-house policy that details which samples to obtain, questions to ask, diagnostics to run and reporting forms to complete. The American Veterinary Medical Association offers a document, “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect," which includes sample reporting forms and protocols that clinics can use. 

When an owner brings in a pet and the veterinarian or staff on call suspect cruelty, it’s important to keep calm and avoid jumping to conclusions. The first step is to gather as much information as possible and ask open-ended questions such as, “How and when did this happen?” and “Who was involved?”

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Dr. Skadron and his team approach suspected cruelty carefully because incorrect assumptions could be highly offensive to the owner. He suggests reviewing the patient’s history, whether the injuries match the story, and whether the animal has behavioral or biting issues.

As you assess and treat the patient, document and take samples as thoroughly as possible. Keep in mind that veterinarians are not permitted to hold animals or perform treatment without owner consent. The owner could argue that treatments or diagnostics are too costly; however, there are workarounds. Skadron believes his team should be in a position “to do anything we can in these situations to help the pet, even if it means a donation of hospital resources and offering a new home.”

Once the pet is assessed, review the owner and the owner’s behavior. Was he indifferent or concerned about his pet? Did she want to pursue medical treatment or did she decline? How does the pet react and respond to the owner? These little warning signs can make a difference in an animal cruelty case, and it’s important to remember and document them all.

Dr. Lee treated a dog that was paralyzed when hit by a car, and the owners’ indifference to the pet’s poor prognosis and potential for suffering was a red flag.

“The owners took their dog home against medical advice, and after multiple follow-up phone calls to check on the dog, I discovered they never sought veterinary care afterward despite recommendations,” Lee said. “I checked with hospital management to see if there was a specific policy and ended up utilizing the local animal humane society to direct my animal cruelty report to.”

Once the exam is complete and treatment is administered, veterinarians have the choice to educate or report. Is the cruelty happening because of the owner’s lack of knowledge? If so, it could be accidental and the behavior could be changed with education. For example, if the pet comes in severely matted, with overgrown nails and ear mites, educating about recommended grooming could rectify the situation. However, if the pet continually comes in with matted hair, overgrown nails and ear mites despite education, referrals and recommendations, it might be time to report the case as animal cruelty.

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In many cases, veterinarians may be concerned about getting someone in trouble, preserving client relationships and an ever-present fear: What if I’m wrong?

Lee encourages veterinarians to follow professional recommendations.

“For me, I found my best avenue and approach is to contact the local humane society and escalate the situation to an appropriate agent who can check on the welfare of the pet,” she said. “Likewise, one can call the police if they believe the situation is severe enough. “We must be an advocate for animals who don’t have a voice.”

Many states—Arizona and Oregon among them—offer immunity from civil or criminal liability if a report is made in good faith. It’s critical that clinic owners, veterinarians and the staff understand local and state regulations regarding liability and good-faith protections.

Beyond Animal Cruelty 

Animal abuse may signal that something is wrong within the owner’s family and that other trouble is occurring.

 “It’s important to realize that when there’s abuse to an animal there may be abuse to a child or spouse,” Lee said.

During her time in Philadelphia, Lee treated an iguana that had been maliciously thrown against a wall. The pet was brought in by a mother and her child. The child had a black eye. Researchers have confirmed that animal cruelty can co-occur with spousal, child and elder abuse.

In other scenarios, animal cruelty can be a sign of mental illness.

Lee treated an English bulldog with a fractured leg that needed surgical correction. Weeks later, the owner brought in the same dog because of trauma to the spleen and secondary hemoabdomen. That’s when Lee alerted management because of the possibility that the client suffered from Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a rare form of animal cruelty in which the owner seeks attention through injuring the animal.

Call in the Feds

Animal cruelty is a serious offense, one that veterinarians are at the front line to combat. The FBI has escalated animal cruelty to be a Class A felony, part of the same grouping of violent crimes that include homicides and assaults. The FBI also tracks cases to learn more about the correlation between animal cruelty and other crimes. In addition, states are considering publishing—or already publish—registries of animal cruelty offenders to further prohibit repeated offenders from owning anymore animals.


Stephanie Duncan is communication coordinator at the Veterinary Hospitals Association, a cooperative based in South St. Paul, Minn. 

Originally published in the April 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

One thought on “How to Recognize Animal Abuse

  1. Nabors who can’t take care of there Pets they leave them out in the cold. We have bad Nabors who think of them selfsame then there own Pets. There though less. Then even take in Men who’s been too Jail . It’s not fair too other Nabors. People who do this need too move away from People who has small children. These are not well Nabors. They need too move out of this complex.

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