Probably every experienced veterinarian in the UK has seen a companion animal that has been injured by the person who has brought the animal to the clinic – the person who stands before the vet in the consulting room. The perpetrator is there in front of him. Most likely the vet has no idea. Sometimes he might have a suspicion. Other times the “pet’s owner” may fabricate an illness that their companion animal is suffering from and then brought the animal to their vet for a cure. The vet may treat the animal on what he hears when there is no need to.
This is about a well known psychological illness that concerns babies but which also affects companion animals: Munchausen syndrome or Munchausen by proxy. You have probably read about it in the newspapers when babies are concerned. The usual scenario is a mother who hurts her baby thereby drawing attention to herself and receiving sympathy.
An example of Munchausen by proxy in relation to cats concerned two kittens: Angel and Princes. They were taken to a vet’s surgery in Essex with serious injuries:
- Angel: broken tail and front leg;
- Princess: head wounds and front paw injury.
In relation to Angel and Princess, veterinary experts giving evidence in an RSPCA prosecution said that there were concerns that the “pattern” of the injuries coupled with the request for treatment indicated “induced illness” or….the owner did it, in plain language. The kittens were rehomed. The RSPCA reported on this case in their annual report on 2011 prosecutions.
One worry is that most, or at least a good percentage of, veterinarians appear to be unaware of Munchausen by proxy in relation to animals. That may extent to most people. Another worry is that the people who suffer from this psychological condition are extremely devious. It can be very difficult to be certain about what is going on. You can imagine how tricky it would be for a vet to question a client that he suspects has injured her cat just for the sake of attracting attention to herself. That difficulty in itself must be a major barrier to weeding out the cases of animals injured under these circumstances.
Munchausen by proxy involving pets is another example of how vulnerable the companion animal is when living with people. People can be quite dangerous to a “pet” even when they supposedly love them.
We don’t know how many cases there are. There are probably many more than people believe there are. The cases that come to light are probably the tip of the iceberg.