Melinda D. Merck1, DVM
There are numerous situations that qualify as animal cruelty: starvation, dehydration, untreated medical problems, failure to provide relief from extreme environmental conditions, hoarding, embedded collars, physical or sexual abuse, poisoning, animal fighting, and so on. Physical abuse cases often have neglect as a component of the crime. Animal cruelty is basically any action or lack of action that results in unjustifiable or unnecessary suffering, illness, injury, or death of an animal. It is important that veterinarians have an understanding of their animal cruelty laws so they can respond appropriately and assist the investigators and prosecutors in the potential case. Reporting suspected abuse does not mean the alleged perpetrator will be arrested - it means that an investigation will be undertaken. It takes all parties to fulfill their role in the investigation to prove and disprove possible elements of the crime.
Abused Animals in the Practice Setting
It is very difficult for veterinarians to realize and accept the fact that animals who are victims of abuse will be brought into their practice. The Munro and Thrusfield study, published in a series of articles titled the "Battered Pet Syndrome" in 2001, demonstrates how common this actually is. The person who brings in the animal may or may not be aware that the animal has been abused. That person, or a child, may also be a victim of abuse in the home. Often, the person bringing the animal in has a close relationship with the abuser. It is very important for veterinarians to realize that their discussions with the owner may elicit important information, including possible confessions. The study by Munro and Thrusfield reported that in several cases a family member was implicated by the owner. In twenty-five of the cases, the owner admitted to committing the abuse. It is of particular interest that in five of the cases, the admission came after the veterinarian had merely discussed the possibility of abuse as the cause of the injuries. Another common scenario is hoarders who bring animals into the hospital. Animal hoarding is defined as someone who has accumulated a large number of animals that overwhelmed their ability to provide a minimum of care including adequate nutrition, sanitary conditions, and veterinary care. Animal hoarding is about the need to accumulate and control animals which supersedes the needs of the animals.
It is important to have an SOP for a veterinary hospital to handle and report suspected abuse cases. Depending on the jurisdiction, the responsible agency for investigating cruelty may be one or more agencies (i.e., police, animal services, department of agriculture), depending on the type of crime or the species involved. The prosecutor responsible for animal cruelty cases should also be identified - this may be different people depending on the level of crime: solicitor vs. district attorney. All staff should be trained on the SOP and the animal cruelty laws and practice act affecting reporting of suspected abuse. Some areas have mandatory reporting requirements, liability protection and/or clear rules for record confidentiality. These should be part of the staff training and SOP. The SOP should include several key components: agency(s) responsible for abuse investigations including all contact information; name of head cruelty officer in your area including cell number for emergencies; from responsible investigating agency: 'after hours' contact and reporting/response protocol; protocol for handling of animal after report: cruelty officer and/or prosecutor should provide input on legal protocol for retention and protection of the animal (live or deceased); protocol for handling of live and deceased animal: documentation, chain of custody, photographs, records. The key is to establish a relationship early with the investigating agency/officers and the prosecutors. Invite them to come to your hospital to provide training on the law, liability, reporting, and response.
Taking History in a Potential Abuse Case
Things may not always be what they appear to be when examining a victim of animal cruelty. The suspicion of non-accidental injury should be raised when there is significant discrepancy between the history provided and the clinical findings. Suspicion should also be raised when explanations are vague, inconsistent, or contradictory. It is important to get a more thorough history in animal abuse cases than routinely performed in veterinary medicine. In abuse cases, certain questions need to be answered in order to investigate, charge, and prosecute these crimes. Questions should be asked to determine who had access to the animal (including other animals), what did the animal have access to, when did the event occur, where did the event occur, how did it happen, and why did it happen. Details are needed about the environment including whether the animal had access to the outside, if allowed outside unattended, and when outside is the animal confined and how is it confined, and if there is a gate present on the fence and if it is locked. If the animal lives strictly indoors, then the layout of the home is needed including the presence and location of stairs. Specific information is needed regarding where the animal was found, what was present around the animal (such as blood or other bodily fluids), and the initial symptoms of the animal. In addition, a history should be obtained regarding what food the animal eats (including brand, dry or can), how often the animal is fed, if it is known when the animal last ate or drank, and when the animal last had access to food or water. The behavior of the owner may raise suspicion as to the cause of the animal's injury. The owner may be apathetic, uneasy, angry with routine history questions, embarrassed, or their responses may be generally inappropriate to the situation, especially as they are apprised of the gravity of the situation.
When examining an animal, there must be full documentation of all the findings. The exam should include written and photographic and/or video documentation. All notes, recordings, photographs, and reports are considered evidence and will be reviewed by the investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge. It is important to do a complete physical exam, blood work, fecal, and radiographs on victims of animal cruelty. Every effort should be made to collect evidence prior to treatment to prevent contamination of the evidence. After treating the animal, it is vital to document the process of the animal's recovery including weight gain and by repeating appropriate tests. As the animal recovers, the medical records and/or reports should include the timelines for treatments and assess the reasons for the animal's recovery.
Any evidence related to a crime must follow a chain of custody. This refers to a recording process where the evidence is accounted for at all times. "Evidence" is anything collected at the scene of the crime, from the animal, all samples, all photographs taken, the photo card or negatives, radiographs, and the animal itself. It is acceptable to make a CD copy of the photo card and hold that as the evidence containing the photographs so that the photo card may be re-used. In all cases of suspected cruelty, it should be the police or animal control that transports the body to the veterinarian. All evidence must be labeled with date and time, a description of the item, where it was collected from, and the person who collected it. The container should be sealed with some kind of tape and the person collecting should initial or sign across the seal with the date. An evidence log must be maintained showing the same information and the location where the item is kept. All evidence should be kept in a locked cabinet with restricted access. If the evidence is transferred to another person, location or laboratory, this must be noted with time and date and time, the purpose of the transfer, and a signature obtained from the recipient - this is following chain of custody. This also applies to the body of the animal.
1. Merck M, ed. Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations. 2nd ed. Ames, IA: John Wiley Publishing; 2013.