Reporting laws suggest need for abuse standards

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Late this past year, Massachusetts joined the handful of states with laws addressing the reporting of animal abuse by veterinarians.

Signed by Gov A. Paul Cellucci in November, the statute protects veterinarians from civil or criminal liability when they alert authorities to an animal they suspect has been inhumanely treated. These good samaritan laws are intended to encourage practitioner reporting by granting legal protections when, for good reason, veterinarians breach client confidentiality.

"We're hoping that if a veterinarian does see something he or she thinks in good faith is caused by the client or family member, there's one less block to reporting it," said Kara Holmquist, associate director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. For more than six years the MSPCA lobbied for passage of the bill, which has the support of the Massachusetts VMA.

Yet the law is not always the best guide for veterinarians walking the fine line between respect for client privacy and protecting animal health and well-being. There is little uniformity among the states regarding the criminality of animal abuse; veterinarian's legal responsibility is not always clearly defined or known. What's more, abuse can be difficult to determine.

Data from the American Humane Association, Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and others indicate that at least 11 states have some form of animal abuse reporting laws. Reporting laws are also being considered in Colorado and New York.

The statutes range from voluntary reporting, similar to the Massachusetts law, to mandatory reporting, as is the case in Minnesota, Kansas, and West Virginia. California, Arizona, and Wisconsin require veterinarians to notify authorities when they suspect a dog was injured in the course of a staged animal fight.

In 2000, the AVMA adopted a revised policy about reporting animal abuse that includes the statement, "When these situations cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities."

There is speculation veterinarians will eventually be required to report not only animal cruelty, but also child abuse, domestic violence, and senior citizen abuse, as must other licensed health care professionals. Already in Colorado and Illinois, veterinarians must notify authorities of suspected child abuse and senior abuse, respectively.

Mandated reporting raises the specter of liability for not reporting abuse, although no one interviewed for this article was aware of any case in which a veterinarian was sued for reporting abuse or failing to do so.

Only a small number of states have adopted animal abuse reporting laws, a combined result of the rigors of the legislative process and lack of awareness, according to Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

"This is a new thing that people haven't been thinking about for years as being important," Dr. Patronek said. "Combine that with a small constituency that supports it, not a great perceived need, and a lot of competing interests. It just suffers from being lower on everybody's list than some other things."

Reporting laws originate in a number of ways. For example, as a bill in the state legislature or an amendment to the professional conduct guidelines designed by the state veterinary licensing boards. However, practitioners may not be aware of their reporting responsibilities under the law, despite notification from the state veterinary associations and licensing boards.

"The bottom line is, it's a very murky landscape and ill defined," said Randy Lockwood, PhD, HSUS vice president for research and educational outreach. Dr. Lockwood lectures veterinarians and law enforcement officials around the country about the link between human and animal violence. He related that when he spoke at meetings of the Chicago and Illinois State veterinary medical associations, virtually none of the estimated 250 veterinary professionals who attended indicated that they were aware of the newly enacted state law requiring them to report senior abuse.

"It's not something that's covered in the veterinary school curriculum, and something that's not generally covered unless it's raised in the context of a state VMA meeting," Dr. Lockwood explained.

What's unclear is whether the laws actually influence reporting frequency. To date, there is no evidence, other than anecdotal, that veterinarians practicing in states with reporting laws are more inclined to report animal abuse.

According to Wanda Goodwin, executive director of the West Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine, the state began mandating reporting of animal abuse in 1991. Although veterinarians there are protected from civil and criminal liability, Goodwin could not say whether there has been any increase in the number of reported animal cruelty cases.

A survey of Michigan veterinarians found the only factor that determined whether they would report suspected animal abuse was the reaction of the accused client (see JAVMA, Dec 15, 1997, page 1521). Even more interesting is a study by Tufts and the MSPCA of the attitudes of Massachusetts veterinarians that revealed they distinguish between ethical and legal obligations of reporting deliberate animal abuse and neglect. Whereas the majority felt there is an ethical obligation to report abuse and neglect, less than half thought it should be a legal requirement.

Statutes and rules pertaining to client confidentiality in several states expressly forbid violating client privacy. Veterinarians in New York, for instance, can't voluntarily divulge information about a client's pet, even in the public interest, including when the animal has bitten a person and it's not clear whether the animal was vaccinated.

A veterinarian who is deliberating over whether to report a client for suspected abuse may feel alone. Not only are there liability concerns, but also concerns for reputation and the safety of self and staff—an individual who willfully injures an animal may be dangerous.

"A reporting bill can certainly help with pieces of that, but it doesn't address all of it, because a veterinarian doesn't have anything or anyone to really hide behind. They've got to be willing to put themselves out on the line," Dr. Patronek said.

Complicating matters further, evidence of abuse is not always so blatant as a dog covered with cigarette burns. Abuse, in its more subtle forms, can be a cat with broken ribs. Did it fall from the table, as the client says, or was it kicked? In either case, was the injury intentional?

Absent in veterinary medicine is a set of standard guidelines for determining what constitutes evidence of possible intentional cruelty to animals. Some resources for recognizing and reporting abuse are available to veterinarians, but for the most part, forensic investigation of animal cruelty has been consigned to the periphery of veterinary medicine.

Reporting laws are well-intended, but impotent, if practitioners do not believe in their own ability to recognize deliberate abuse.

"We are really at the starting point of defining more clearly the scientific and medical aspects of abuse," said Dr. Lockwood, who is co-authoring a textbook on investigating animal cruelty for veterinarians and law enforcement officers.

Dr. Lockwood and others pointed out how the human health care profession had struggled with a similar issue more than 30 years ago. There were no clear guidelines for identifying probable child abuse until 1962, with the publication of "The Battered Child Syndrome" in JAMA by C. Henry Kempe, MD, and his colleagues. The study enumerated injury patterns in children that are accepted by the medical profession as signs of abuse.

The lack of clear abuse standards in veterinary medicine can contribute to diffidence in notifying authorities of inhumane treatment. Reporting laws are well-intended, but impotent, if practitioners do not believe in their own ability to recognize deliberate abuse. The MSPCA's Holmquist advocates training and education of veterinarians to ensure a policy's effectiveness.

"If we're requiring people to report something, we should at least provide training and understanding so that it can be recognized, and people can feel comfortable recognizing and reporting, and that includes veterinarians," she said.

Susan Weinstein, executive director of the Massachusetts VMA, said that a benefit of laws like the one passed in her state is the raising of awareness about animal cruelty. "This gives us a springboard to educate veterinarians about recognizing the signs of abuse or cruelty," she said. The association is interested in sponsoring courses designed to help veterinarians identify abuse, and it is considering running a feature article in the association newsletter, Weinstein said.

The legal community's interest in animal cruelty has grown as the link between human and animal violence continues to gain attention. The Delaware attorney general has organized a task force on the relationship between human and animal violence. Dr. Lockwood explained that in the past decade, law enforcement agencies have become more aggressive in prosecuting animal cruelty cases, partly because of greater recognition of that link.

"The law enforcement community is seeing that taking animal cruelty seriously is popular in their communities. They see it as an effective tool in helping identify at-risk populations at an early stage in their criminal activities," he said.

Dr. Patronek believes that a national database for cataloging and studying reports of animal cruelty would help the profession develop accepted principles for identifying and responding to animal cruelty. "Once you've got clearer standards, the mandating will certainly be viewed more by veterinarians as a useful legal protection to have, and they'll also, perhaps, be more eager to do that."