Vet Talk

Are Veterinarians Required to Report Animal Cruelty?

No one wants to report suspected animal abuse while doubting the validity of that decision

Published: June 10, 2019
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

Most folks are aware of the laws requiring certain groups of people to report child abuse. In the majority of the United States and its territories, these individuals include physicians, teachers, and social workers, just to name a few professions. It is understandable then that many people assume that veterinarians are held to the same standard when it comes to animal abuse. This is not the case.

While many states across the U.S. do have some level of mandatory reporting of animal abuse, not all do. Some states allow reporting of animal abuse but do not require it, and one state – Kentucky – mandates that veterinarians not report animal abuse without a waiver from the client or a court order (KRS § 321.185). According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in Kentucky a “veterinarian shall not violate the confidential relationship between the veterinarian and the client except on receipt of a waiver, appropriate court order, or subpoena.”

Furthermore, in the states that do have mandatory reporting laws, those laws vary widely from state to state. For instance, while California mandates that all licensed veterinarians and licensed technicians report all suspicions of animal abuse and neglect (West's Ann.Cal.Bus. & Prof.Code § 4830.5 and § 4830.7), Illinois requires only “aggravated cruelty and torture” to be reported, and only by veterinarians (510 ILCS 70/3.07).

In many states, veterinarians are also mandated reporters of child abuse. Ironically, this may be true even if they are not required or not allowed to report animal abuse.

In the last several years, more and more states are adding laws on mandatory reporting of animal abuse. The reason for this is not only for the sake of the animals, but also because of the known connection between animal cruelty and other forms of violence. This connection is commonly referred to as the Link. In a nutshell, it means that when animals are being abused, people are also at risk of abuse, and vice versa. In other words, when law enforcement investigates concerns for animal cruelty or neglect, they often find other crimes such as domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and other forms of interpersonal violence and crime. For instance, cruelty towards pets is one of four risk factors that a person is more likely to become a perpetrator of domestic violence. Also, in 88% of homes being monitored due to physical child abuse, animal abuse was also present. And in a study looking at over 44,000 male sexual predators, the single biggest factor predicting that an offender would commit child sexual assault was if he had committed animal sexual assault, commonly referred to as bestiality.

As of 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is tracking animal cruelty cases using the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The categories are animal sexual assault, simple and gross neglect, organized fighting, and intentional abuse and torture.

Then, given the Link, why don’t all states have mandatory reporting laws of animal cruelty? Hard to say. Part of the issue is likely due to the status of animals in our society as property. People have rights and responsibilities; property does not. (Whether or not animals should have rights or there should be a third category of sentient beings recognized by the law is a topic for a different day.)

Part of the lack of nationwide mandatory reporting of animal cruelty is likely the concern by veterinarians that reporting animal abuse may harm the veterinarian-client-patient bond. When this bond is good, then the veterinarian and the client (owner) are both working for the good of the animal. However, if either the client or the veterinarian feels that the other does not have the animal’s best interests in mind, there is friction. Many veterinarians feel that the best way to handle that friction is to remain in good standing with the client by not addressing any concerns of neglect or abuse, so that they may be able to continue to see the animal for care. For veterinarians in Kentucky, this is furthered by the law that does not allow them to break client confidentiality in order to report concerns of abuse. Additionally, some veterinarians worry about their own liability if they should make a report.

It is for this reason that many states have civil and/or criminal immunity for a veterinarian who reports a suspicion of abuse in good faith.

No matter how good the intentions, no one wants to make a report of a suspicion of animal abuse and have doubts about the validity or wisdom of that decision.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons a report may wither on the vine, and they often have nothing to do with whether or not the animal is being harmed. Just a few of the reasons are a lack of an adequate investigation, insufficient evidence, a reluctance to prosecute, a finding of “no abuse” based on the current laws, lack of funding, or even a legal technicality. It is important to remember that animal cruelty is a legal definition, not a medical one, so the determination of whether or not abuse has occurred is determined by the legal system – law enforcement and animal control, prosecutors, judges, and juries – not the veterinarian. Because of the variability in state laws, what constitutes abuse in one state may not be abuse in another.

Mandatory reporting of animal abuse can offer veterinarians in those states an advantage: it makes a level playing field for all veterinarians in the state. If signs of abuse are seen by one veterinarian at one clinic, then in theory, those same signs would be noted by a different veterinarian as well. If everyone has to report, then the report is part of the system, it is not personal.

This is particularly important because abused animals are seen by veterinarians at the same rate as those that are not abused. And the animal may be brought in by the abuser, a good Samaritan, law enforcement or animal control, by another victim in the home as is often seen in domestic violence situations, or even by a client who is unaware that the pet is being abused. The report may be the first step to getting many other animals and people the help they need. Few reports actually proceed all the way to court. An investigation may lead to aid from social services, mental health counseling, or other care for the person(s) involved. Afterall, veterinarians often have the same level of compassion for their clients as they do their patients. 

Mandatory reporting may be the catalyst that helps all involved.

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