Veterinarians: a missing LINK

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The wife of a prominent Lhasa Apso breeder brings a dog into your clinic because, while she was carrying him, they both fell down the stairs. The wife is black-and-blue, and the animal's wounds look as though they'd resulted from a beating rather than a tumble. What do you do?

As awareness of human and animal abuse grows, many in the health care and animal welfare communities are seeking ways to help practitioners respond.

-Communities across the nation are rallying to build coalitions to fight violence against people and animals. In particular, the American Humane Association has initiated a program, the AHA National Resource Center on the Link Between Violence to People and Animals, that involves an assembly of groups working together to stop human and animal abuse.

Michael Kaufmann, education director, AHA Animal Protection Division, encourages veterinarians to get involved, because of the growing awareness of a correlation between animal abuse and human abuse, such as domestic violence, elder abuse, and child abuse. "Veterinarians can help by reporting animal abuse to local authorities, such as police, animal control authorities, or the department of human services," he said.

"Some people think that talking about a link correlating animal cruelty and human abuse diminishes the importance of the issue of animal abuse," Kaufmann said. When psychologists studied serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, however, they discovered that one key behavior was animal abuse. "For too many people, animal abuse in the community is on one side, and the rapes, murders, shootings, and domestic violence are on the other," Kaufmann said.

The Link's goal is to broaden the network of people interested in this correlation and willing to do something about it, to include law enforcement officials, veterinarians, social workers, psychologists, physicians, animal care and control workers, mental health professionals, attorneys, judges, educators, and domestic violence workers. Catching and reforming animal abusers before they go on to abuse humans could help nip the problem in the bud.

Abuse victims who do seek help from the community have the option of taking refuge in a shelter, but what about abused pets?

Research shows that many abuse victims, most of whom are women, will leave an abusive situation if they can take their children to shelters (Ascione, F. Talking with Frank Ascione about the Link. Protecting Children 1999; 15:4-5). "But what we've found is that they won't leave if they can't take their pets. If the pet [must be] left with the perpetrator ... the woman is more likely to stay in the bad situation and be abused or killed," Kaufmann said.

Some animal shelters offer assistance to human abuse victims by sheltering their pets on a short-term basis. There are stipulations, such as how long animals will be held and what actions will be taken if an animal becomes ill or needs veterinary medical assistance, if an owner does not pick up the animal, or if the owner is a substance abuser and should not have the animal. The biggest risk, according to Kaufmann, is a perpetrator coming into the shelter threatening to get a pet back.

The possibility that animal abuse may denote a troubled and dangerous human perpetrator is also receiving more public attention through the media. Suzanne Barnard, director of Special Programs for AHA's Children's Division, said, "The media are starting to feature [not only violence toward people, but] a violence connection in that the animal victims are now included in articles and news stories."

Barnard said several researchers have conducted studies on this link. Researchers in the 1960s came to the conclusion that animal cruelty, severe bed-wetting, and fire setting constitute a triad of behaviors by children symptomatic of later violence toward people.

"Other studies showed that those who had animal abuse on their records were five times as likely to go on to commit other violent crimes, typically against people," Barnard said.

Clinical signs of animal cruelty are not always clear-cut. Kaufmann said, "Who needs to help us define animal cruelty? That, of course, is the veterinary profession. Veterinarians are not mandated reporters of animal cruelty. So we have begun to help the profession put together some understanding of what is cruelty to animals."

Barnard said, "In the 1960s we didn't know what child abuse was, either. The toughest group to convince was pediatricians. When I talk to veterinarians [about watching for animal abuse], they sound to me like the pediatricians used to sound in the 1960s. ... [The veterinarians are saying] 'we'll lose our clients; it's too hard to define animal cruelty.'"

An article published in the Aug 1, 1999 JAVMA, "A survey of teaching and implementation: The veterinarian's role in recognizing and reporting abuse," suggests adding abuse recognition training to veterinary schools' curricula. Some state and local veterinary medical associations have added sessions on animal abuse to their CE programs.

The AVMA, in 1994, adopted its current position on animal welfare about "Cruelty to Animals, Animal Abuse, and Neglect." The position states:

The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may have occasion to observe cases of cruelty to animals, animal abuse, or animal neglect as defined by state law or local ordinances. When these observations occur, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to the appropriate authorities. Such disclosures may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people.

For information, contact the Link Resource Center at the AHA by phone, (877) LINK-222; or e-mail, linkatamericanhumane [dot] org (link[at]americanhumane[dot]org).