Members of the veterinary community hold a unique position in healthcare: They interact with both people and their pets, making them vital to identifying and responding to multiple forms of mistreatment, such as animal abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Understanding the connection between cruelty to animals and violence towards humans is essential for those in this field.
Our focus at Don’t Forget the Pets (DFTP) is supporting people and pets in crisis. We help human and animal services organizations, including veterinary professionals, in their efforts to collaborate, educate, and share resources to better assist their communities. One of the areas that we prioritize is supporting domestic violence survivors and their pets, which includes helping communities create pet housing programs so that survivors and their pets can find safety together.¹
Domestic Violence and Pets
The link between human and animal violence is well-documented. Animals are more at-risk in homes where humans are being abused, and humans are more at-risk in homes where pets are being abused. In 2021, The Urban Resource Institute and the National Domestic Violence Hotline conducted the largest nationwide survey of domestic violence survivors in the U.S., which focused on the intersection of domestic violence and pets.2 The study found that:
- 76% of survivors noticed changes in their pet’s behavior as a result of abuse,
- 29% said the abuser had physically harmed or killed pets,
- 23% had sought medical treatment for their pet as a result of domestic abuse, and
- 30% of survivors reported that their children had witnessed or been aware of abuse or threats to their pet.2
Veterinarians and other veterinary professionals can play many roles in supporting survivors and their pets. Knowing the signs of domestic violence and pet abuse is an important step in providing support for their community. Specific to patient care, this includes gathering and documenting evidence, and knowing who to report cases of abuse to if needed.3 While mandatory reporting requirements for veterinarians vary a great deal between states, we’ve written a quick overview of what reporting entails and why it is important for keeping humans and animals safe.
What is mandatory reporting?
To protect the most vulnerable, at-risk groups, states have implemented laws to ensure that those who most closely interact with these groups report to designated authorities when abuse is suspected or observed. While any concerned citizen can call a hotline or speak to an authority figure about suspected abuse or neglect, some professions are legally obligated to report. Mandated reporting is applicable in many different professions and industries that work with vulnerable populations, including healthcare, educational services, and public services.4
How does mandatory reporting work in the veterinary field?
Reporting in the veterinary field applies to cases of animal cruelty, abuse, and neglect. While this may seem rather straightforward, the legal definitions for cruelty, abuse, and neglect can vary depending on local ordinances and state or federal laws.5 Further, the offenses that are considered reportable vary by state.6 Having a strong understanding of the definitions and how they apply in practice is key.
As of 2022, all states allow licensed veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse, and 20 states legally require veterinarians (and sometimes veterinary technicians) to report suspected violations to authorities, which tends to be local law enforcement agencies.7 In voluntary or permissive reporting, regulations specifically state that veterinarians are allowed to report abuse, but they are not legally required to report. Two states, Oregon and Maine, have both mandatory and permissive reporting regulations that depend on the type of violation. Currently, 14 states do not any have laws or regulations on mandatory or permissive reporting of animal abuse.8
Because statutes can change, it’s important for veterinarians and veterinary professionals to regularly check their state’s legislative website for current reporting requirements.9 Outside of state mandates, veterinarians must also follow their state’s professional codes of conduct, as they could face disciplinary action should they fail to report cases of animal cruelty.8 Even without specific legal or professional obligations to abide by, veterinarians may feel that there are serious ethical responsibilities to be considered when deciding to report.
What concerns do veterinarians have?
Concerns over reporting include the seriousness of breaking client confidentiality and how that could affect the livelihood of the veterinary practice. However, the opposite could occur where community support increases due to their local clinic speaking up and reporting abuse. There are also concerns regarding understanding how to accurately identify signs of abuse. While it is necessary to recognize and document these signs, veterinarians are not expected to be legal experts or have evidence that the animal has been purposefully or accidentally harmed.10 Most states grant immunity from civil and criminal liability to veterinarians who make a report in good faith.11 This protection is important as veterinarians who do not have immunity could be at risk of being sued for libel or defamation by the animal’s owner.8 This is the case in 20 states, and in their policy on animal abuse and animal neglect, the AVMA has encouraged all state legislatures to provide immunity to any veterinarian who reports.12
What are the goals of reporting and why is it important?
It is the responsibility of veterinarians to protect and advocate for their patient’s health and safety. Reporting is meant to accomplish the “3 P’s: Prevent, Protect, Promote.”¹⁰ More specifically, these goals are focused on preventing animal suffering, protecting animals and humans, and promoting public health. In the context of supporting domestic violence survivors and their pets, reporting helps to stop further abuse of the patient and may also help other animals and people in the home who could be at risk. Gathering information and reporting documents the abuse, which can potentially assist humane law enforcement in responding to and identifying other types of violence in the home, such as child, elder, or domestic abuse.11 Reporting could be the first step in a survivor’s journey to getting the help they need.
What are the recommendations for veterinarians?
- Research the laws and requirements in their state. The AVMA has resources regarding mandated reporting for veterinarians, including a summary report on reporting requirements by state.
- Learn the signs that may indicate family abuse is occurring in the home.13 The National Link Coalition has extensive research available on the link between veterinary medicine and family violence.
- Reach out to local community organizations, such as domestic violence organizations, family justice centers, and local law enforcement agencies to start a line of communication and seek training.
- Extend this knowledge and training to veterinary practice staff and create a plan of action to be prepared when there is a case of suspected animal abuse or family violence. The Kirkpatrick Foundation has created an excellent manual on establishing protocols to identify and report suspected animal cruelty.
If you’re a member of the veterinary community and would like to learn more about how you can support domestic violence survivors and their pets, join us for Don’t Forget the Pets’ upcoming presentation, “Empathy is Everything: Veterinary Medicine and Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors.”
You don’t need to be the expert in everything. We’ll talk about how your team can collaborate with local organizations to get the training and support needed to help survivors and their pets in your community.
¹ Don’t Forget the Pets. (2023). https://dontforgetthepets.org/
² Urban Resource Institute and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. PALS Report and Survey: Breaking Barriers to Safety and Healing. https://urinyc.org/palsreport/
³ Don’t Forget the Pets. (2023). Veterinary Medicine & The Link. https://dontforgetthepets.org/veterinarians/
⁴ Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Mandated Reporters. https://www.michigan.gov/mdhhs/adult-child-serv/abuse-neglect/adult-ps/mandated-reporters
⁵ American Veterinary Medical Association. Animal abuse and animal neglect. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/animal-abuse-and-animal-neglect
⁶ American Veterinary Medical Association. (2021). Reporting Requirements for Animal Abuse. https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/Reporting-requirements_for-animal-abuse.pdf
⁷ Animal Legal & Historical Center. (2022). Map of Veterinary Reporting Laws for Animal Cruelty. https://www.animallaw.info/content/map-veterinary-reporting-laws-animal-cruelty
⁸ Wisch, R. F. (2022). Table of Veterinary Reporting Requirement and Immunity Laws. Animal Legal & Historical Center. https://www.animallaw.info/topic/table-veterinary-reporting-requirement-and-immunity-laws
⁹ American Veterinary Medical Association. Animal abuse resources for veterinarians. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/animal-welfare/animal-abuse-resources-veterinarians
¹⁰ Kirkpatrick Foundation. Reporting Animal Cruelty: The Role of the Veterinarian. https://kirkpatrickfoundation.com/uploads/ok-reporting-animal-cruelty-book-web.pdf
¹¹ National Link Coalition. Veterinary Medicine and The Link. https://nationallinkcoalition.org/what-is-the-link/veterinary-medicine-and-the-link
¹² American Veterinary Medical Association. AVMA Policies: Animal abuse and animal neglect. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/animal-abuse-and-animal-neglect
¹³ RedRover. PLP Vet US Poster. https://redrover.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/89087-PLP-Vet-US-Poster.pdf