Responding to suspected cases of animal cruelty

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In this article:
  • Find resources to identify, address, document, and report suspected companion animal abuse and neglect.
  • Learn the FBI’s definition of animal cruelty and what it encompasses.
  • Understand the role of the veterinary team in reporting suspected animal cruelty.

For veterinary professionals dedicated to protecting the health, welfare, and safety of animals, encountering a case of suspected maltreatment, cruelty, neglect, or abuse can be both morally distressing and practically overwhelming. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to respond.

The following resources will help you and your team prepare for, identify, and address these difficult situations when they arise.

What is animal cruelty?

According to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), animal cruelty encompasses these four categories: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse, and animal sexual abuse. It is crucial that veterinarians be familiar with these concepts, know how to recognize their signs, and understand how they are defined under applicable laws and ordinances.

Do I have to report suspected animal cruelty?

The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report suspected cases of animal cruelty when an educational or supportive approach is not appropriate. Knowing the signs consistent with animal maltreatment, cruelty, abuse, and neglect is key to being able to identify it. Keep in mind, it is not the veterinarian’s role to determine if maltreatment meets the enumerated elements of a crime; this is the duty of the investigating authority and criminal justice system.

The veterinarian’s role is to identify signs of non-accidental injury and be familiar with applicable cruelty laws in the jurisdiction where the maltreatment is believed to have occurred. Based on these, you may be legally mandated to report suspected cases of abuse, neglect, or animal fighting to an appropriate authority. Legal statutes and regulations may change, so you should always consult your state's most current veterinary practice act and reporting guidelines.

Veterinarians also are encouraged to establish a relationship with local law enforcement in their communities in order to proactively prevent companion animal maltreatment and support a strong team when faced with a case.

The veterinarian’s framework: Guidelines to plan and respond

It is crucial to have a plan in place for recognizing, documenting, and responding to animal cruelty before encountering it in practice. The veterinarian’s framework for identification and response to suspected or known animal maltreatment is a free AVMA resource designed to help you and your team do just that.

In it you will find:

  • Definitions
  • Signs of maltreatment
  • Steps to file a report
  • Mitigating risk
  • State reporting obligations
  • Directory of state animal cruelty laws
  • Sample forms

Read the guidelines

For additional background, specifically on the link between animal cruelty and harms to people, please see AVMA's 2011 Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect.