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Animal Abuse: Legislation in North America and Latin America

Alice Crook Canada

Veterinary practitioners are often the first professionals to examine an abused animal. Both to protect that animal and because the abuse may be a sentinel for other violence that is occurring within or outside the family, it is crucial that veterinarians deal effectively with instances of suspected animal maltreatment. It has long been recognized in the human field that reporting of abuse to the appropriate authorities is a crucial component of effective intervention; this is being accepted more and more in the veterinary profession.

In North America, there is a move towards encouraging or in some cases mandating, veterinarians to report abuse. State and provincial anti-cruelty laws and animal protection acts are being toughened to treat animal abuse cases more seriously. The Canadian Criminal Code is currently under revision to improve the ability to successfully prosecute cases of animal abuse. Several countries in Latin America have enacted legislation providing protection for animals, although in many cases enforcement is sporadic.


In Canada, inspectors from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)/Humane Society are empowered through provincial acts to investigate complaints by members of the public, including veterinarians. Generally these acts stipulate that an animal is deemed to be in a state of distress if it is in need of food, water, care or treatment; if it is sick, in pain or suffering or has been injured; or if it is abused or subject to cruelty or neglect.(1)

The inspector may be able to resolve the situation with the owner or guardian through education to achieve an acceptable level of care. In cases of intentional abuse or severe neglect, the inspector or any complainant may take the matter to the police who will determine if there is enough evidence to lay a charge under the Canadian Criminal Code.

Proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are currently before Canadian Parliament in Bill C-15.(2) Canadian law in this area is largely unchanged since 1892 and revision is long overdue. Principal changes in
Bill C-15 are:

1. Animals are moved from the property section to a new section of the Criminal Code that focuses on conduct harmful to society. This means that protection against cruelty is extended for the first time to unowned animals, including stray animals and wildlife. This amendment is critical to improving protection for animals.

2. Potential penalties for abuse have been substantially increased for convicted offenders, in the areas of fines, jail time, and prohibition orders regarding future custody of an animal. In addition to enabling more appropriate sentencing, this should provide for improved deterrence.

3. The Criminal Code will include a definition of animal for the first time: �a vertebrate other than a human being, and any other animal that has the capacity to feel pain.�(3)

4. The changes give judges the authority to order anyone convicted of cruelty to animals, to pay restitution such as veterinary bills and shelter costs to the organization that cared for the animal.

Although the proposed changes to the Criminal Code will facilitate prosecution of cases of animal cruelty, the process of bringing a complaint to court will still be a cumbersome and lengthy one. Most complaints of an animal in distress will continue to be dealt with through provincial animal protection acts.

In Canada, all provincial veterinary acts have been amended so that reporting of abuse is no longer considered a breach of confidentiality. Only in Quebec however, is such reporting compulsory.(4)

In the United States, state anti-cruelty statutes are the main form of legal protection for animals. Although each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has enacted its own unique legislation, in general there is protection for animals against three forms of cruelty.(5) The most common type of statute prohibits willful, deliberate, or intentional commission of certain violent acts. The second imposes a duty of care on owners or guardians to provide appropriate food, water, and shelter; the third prohibits participation in or watching organized animal fights. State or local law enforcement agencies may enforce these statutes and/or they may be enforced by humane organizations that have been authorized for this purpose by state legislatures.

Vague and imprecise language in these statutes as to what constitutes cruelty leaves much open to interpretation on the part of enforcement officials and judges. Veterinarians may also be reluctant to become involved because they are unclear as to what constitutes cruelty under a particular statute. The result is inconsistent and unpredictable enforcement of these anti-cruelty laws. Another complicating factor is that under the American legal system, animals are property and so the protection that they receive is weighed against the interests of the owner in their use, possession, and enjoyment.

In most states, violations of the statutes are classed as misdemeanors, which may result in a fine of up to $1000 or up to one year in jail. However, there has been a trend over the last 10 years or so to strengthen the anti-cruelty statutes by characterizing the offense of cruelty to animals as a felony, which carries much stiffer penalties. This is due in part to increasing awareness of the correlation between acts of cruelty towards animals and towards people. Laws in the various states are continually updated or new statutes are added. Current and proposed legislation can be found on the web site of the Animal Protection Institute (6), the Humane Society of the United States (7), or the American Humane Association.(8)

In the United States, veterinarians are mandated to report animal abuse in Minnesota and West Virginia.(9) California, Arizona, and Wisconsin require veterinarians to report incidences of dogs injured or killed in staged dog fights.(9) California and Colorado include veterinarians among the professionals required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.(5) Some, but by no means all states have waived the necessity of maintaining client confidentiality in cases of suspected abuse.(5,9) This is in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics (Appendix I, a).

In Latin America, several countries have legislation providing protection for animals. These countries include Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and Colombia. In general, these laws stipulate appropriate standards of care on the part of the owner or guardian with reference to nutrition, shelter, and not overworking the animal.(10-13). They also prohibit causing unnecessary harm or pain to animals. Colombian and Peruvian legislation specifically exempts bull fighting, cock fighting, and activities that have been deemed cultural from these provisions.(11,12) Argentine law states: �The following will be considered acts of cruelty...organized public or private performances of animals fighting, as cockfighting, bullfighting, or any other performance in which animals are killed, hurt, or lashed.�(10) Brazilian laws on cruelty to animals are primarily concerned with laboratory and wild animals.(14) In Chile there is legislation before Parliament on animal abuse/ cruelty which has not yet been approved.(15) In Mexico, the Mexican Association of Small Animal Practitioners has proposed detailed regulations for small animal care.(13)

Penalties vary. Argentine law provides for sentences for cruelty to animals of 15 days to one year imprisonment; however, prosecutions are rare.(16) Peru has significant penalties�loss of up to 300 days wages and a prohibition on future animal ownership.(12) Substantial fines and sometimes prison terms may be imposed under Chilean, Mexican, or Colombian legislation.(17) However, where there is fighting and violence, the law is ignored and animals suffer.(18)

Humane organizations are active in some parts of Latin America, mostly on a local scale.(14-19) In Mexico, humane societies in larger cities focus on providing medical service and shelter to street dogs.(13)


The position statements of the Canadian and American Veterinary Medical Associations on reporting animal abuse are appended (Appendix I, b and c). The intent is to encourage veterinarians to report animal abuse, both to protect the animals involved and because intervention may stop the perpetration of other violence. As well, in 1996, the AVMA added a statement to the Model Practice Act to the effect that the practice of veterinary medicine includes the reporting of cases of animal abuse or neglect (Appendix I, d). The AVMA�s Human-Animal Bond Committee is exploring the development of a Task Force on the issue of animal abuse.(20)

Some provincial humane and veterinary organizations in Canada are working together to produce concise, easily accessible information that will help veterinarians with questions about when and how to respond to suspected cases of abuse.(21,22) The Animal Welfare Committee of the CVMA is in the process of producing a one-page information sheet for veterinarians that will be mailed with the Canadian Veterinary Journal. The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has sponsored several Violence Prevention Workshops for humane organizations, domestic violence workers, and veterinarians.(23)

Similar initiatives are occurring in the United States, particularly through the First Strike Campaign (Humane Society of the United States) (7), the Violence Link (American Humane Association) (8), and the National Initiative to Prevent Family Violence (Latham Foundation) (24), to bring together social workers, animal protection workers, prosecutors, veterinarians, educators, and others to develop coordinated community responses to violence.


a) American Veterinary Medical Association: Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics

The ethical ideals of the veterinary profession imply that a veterinarian and their staff will protect the personal privacy of clients, unless required by law to reveal the confidences or unless it becomes necessary in order to protect the health and welfare of the individual, the animals, and others whose health and welfare may be endangered. (AVMA Membership Directory and Resource Manual)

b) Canadian Veterinary Medical Association: Animal Abuse

Position: The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) recognizes that veterinarians are in a position to observe occasions of suspected animal abuse. The CVMA believes that in situations that cannot be resolved through education, it is the veterinarian�s responsibility to report such observations to the appropriate authorities.

Background: Animal abuse is the intent to cause harm and includes, but is not limited to, torture or malicious killing of animals. Veterinarians are often the first professionals to see an abused animal. It is part of the responsibility of the veterinarian to protect the patient from further abuse. Client education may be sufficient. Repeat or serious instances should be reported to the appropriate authorities.

Studies have documented a link between the abuse of animals and the abuse of people, especially family members. Veterinarians may be able to play an important role in breaking the cycle of family violence by reporting animal abuse.

Veterinary schools are encouraged to discuss animal abuse, and the reporting thereof, in their curricula, so that graduating veterinarians are better able to recognize the signs of abuse and know the appropriate steps to take in documenting and reporting it. Several provincial licensing bodies have amended their regulations to allow the reporting of animal abuse. (Olson P. Recognizing and Reporting Animal Abuse: A Veterinarian�s Guide. Englewood, Colorado: American Humane Association, 1998 and Rowan AN. Cruelty and Abuse to Animals: A Typology. In: Ascione, Arkow, eds. Animal and Human Abuse. Purdue University, 1999)

c) American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): Animal Abuse and Animal Neglect

The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws, or local ordinances. When these situations cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities. Disclosure may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate record keeping and documentation of these cases are invaluable. (The Veterinarian�s Role in Animal Welfare, AVMA, 2000)

d) AVMA Model Practice Act

Section 2-Definitions 8) Practice of veterinary medicine means...e) to report known or suspected cases of cruelty to animals, animal abuse, or animal neglect as defined by state law or local ordinances, to appropriate humane or law enforcement officials where required by law. (AVMA Model Practice Act, 1996)


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