When Does a Veterinarian Report Animal Abuse?

What should be the standard for veterinarians reporting animal abuse to the authorities? That is, when should a vet report what he thinks is animal abuse? Animal abuse should include animal neglect. My personal view is that the standard for reporting animal abuse should be based on the guidelines for reporting child abuse. I think that is a reasonable starting point. Many pets are considered family members and are treated as family members.

Veterinarians Reporting Animal Abuse
Veterinarians Reporting Animal Abuse. Safety first. A reasonable approach in good faith must allow vets to act on suspicions of animal abuse. Credits: picture top right: Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic. This photo has been used with permission for teaching/educational purposes at PoC. Other pictures copyright Stockxpert or iStockphoto – purchased images.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Another reason why the standard should be similar or the same is because there is a known direct link between animal abuse and child abuse and indeed family violence. There should be a coordinated approach between veterinarians and doctors working from the same guidelines with regard to abuse of children and companion animals. This puts them “on the same page”. There should also be cross-reporting. Perhaps a common database is advisable. This may exist already in some countries.

What I mean is that both vet and doctor input information about suspected animal or child abuse to the same computer database where it is cross-referenced. This would help with assessing when animal abuse has occurred.

Note: Animal abuse from the vet’s perspective is a difficult phenomenon. Reporting it can be difficult to get right. There are many types of animal abuse.

USA – Guidelines Vary

What are the current guidelines for vets reporting animal abuse and doctors reporting child abuse? It should be useful to compare the two. I’ll take some examples. In the United States the guidelines are created at state level. In the UK the relevant professional associations are the General Medical Council (GMC) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA). There may be others. In the United States, as I understand it, the standard for vets reporting animal abuse varies from (1) “direct knowledge of the animal abuse or neglect” to (2) a “reasonable suspicion” that animal abuse has occurred depending on the state.

You can see that the first standard (1) is tougher than the second (2). I would suggest that standard (1) is too tough (too high). How is a veterinarian to have direct knowledge of animal abuse? She will have to rely on a visit to the alleged abuser’s home and question the alleged abuser. Both are likely to come up negative because abusers are probably smart at covering up. Standard (1) is certainly much tougher than state-wide rules concerning child abuse. In states where the standards for reporting are so different between animal and child abuse the professionals are less likely to pick up child abuse early. An early detection of animal abuse confirmed after having a reasonable suspicion is more likely to protect the children of the family and vice-versa.

Guidelines for Vets and Doctors – the language used

Here are some examples:

GMC – for doctors in the United Kingdom (Great Britain). I quote:

61. Your first concern must be the safety of children and young people. You must inform an appropriate person or authority promptly of any reasonable concern that children or young people are at risk of abuse or neglect, when that is in a child’s best interests or necessary to protect other children or young people.

If a doctor in the UK has a good hunch based on all his experience it should be good enough to get the ball rolling to investigate further.

BVA – veterinarians in the UK. They refer to “suspicions of NAI”. NAI stands for “Non Accidental Injury”. So where a vet has suspicions of animal abuse he should act. However it is not mandatory for a vet to report suspected animal abuse. Should that be changed?

AVMA – American Veterinary Medical Association – the association states that a vet should report suspected cases of animal abuse even if the law does not require it. Good start. The AVMA has an extensive document on identifying animal abuse. The AVMA follow the law applicable to the state in which they work. The standard of when to report therefore varies from state to state. However the AVMA write about the “Index of Suspicion”. The concept of suspecting animal abuse seems to run through their documentation. I would have liked to have seen a simple sentence at the beginning of their documentation that explains when a vet should take action about animal abuse.

Pennsylvania, USA – for doctors reporting child abuse, I quote:

..have reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of their professional or other training or experience, that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is a victim of child abuse.

This is similar to suspicions of non accidental injury for vets in the UK and ‘reasonable concern’. They amount to the same thing really. Does the medical professional have a hunch that something is wrong warranting further investigation.

The BVA provide some useful guidelines on spotting animal abuse too:

  • Rib injuries
  • Repetitive injuries
  • Inconsistencies between alleged abuser’s story of the cause of the injury and the vet’s assessed cause.


There is not much point in checking out all the guidelines across America. Personally, I am forced to conclude that people must trust a vet to make a judgement in good faith when he or she has a hunch that something is wrong or inconsistent with the customer’s story and the animal’s health.

Call it a “hunch” or call it “reasonable suspicion” it does not matter that much. I am convinced a good vet (a “reasonable person”) will have a hunch if animal abuse has taken place. He should be free to make that call and instigate some sort of follow up investigation under guidelines. He should not in any way be blamed if the investigation finds no animal abuse.

The stakes are too high to ignore animal abuse both for the animal and potentially the child.

4 thoughts on “When Does a Veterinarian Report Animal Abuse?”

  1. ‘AVMA – American Veterinary Medical Association – the association states that a vet should report suspected cases of animal abuse’

    That’s a joke! The AVMA stand by and allow vets to mutilate cats daily by the cruel amputation of their 10 or 18 healthy toe ends!
    If that isn’t abuse I don’t know what is!

    • This is the big problem for the AVMA. Its members, the vets, abuse cats all the time when they declaw them for non-therapeutic reasons! Sorry to have to say that but from my standpoint it is true. I didn’t want to put that in the post but Ruth is right. I am not sure that an American vet who declaws is the right sort of person to report animal abuse.

  2. I totally agree. I wonder though if vets dont say anything because they aren’t sure and dont want to risk being wrong. Also they are likely to lose a customer so it kind of goes against their business to meddle with the personal lives of their customers. Maybe I am being too cynical but I suspect that since the line is not clear there is plenty of room in a situation for doubt and I suspect such a case probably usually results in no action. Only if a vet is nearly 100% sure will they do something probably. Just my guess. To be fair its probably not an easy thing to do especially if you are not sure abuse is happening.

    • Agreed. I think the vet should be given the authority through law to assess animal abuse and take action. The law would be drafted to protect the vet in case of error. Animal abuse is a window on what happens behind closed doors in respect of things that are illegal.


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