Above and beyond

Above and beyond

General practitioners might be forced into forensic roles with the passage of reporting mandates for neglect, abuse
Feb 01, 2005

It began with an unconscious kitten, bleeding out of one nostril with lung contusions on the same side, radiographs later showed. The owner's presentation didn't correlate with the injuries, and neglect or abuse was likely.

Old bruises on this cat might indicate a pattern of abuse. Chipped or broken teeth also can clue a clinician into the quality of life of an animal. Dr. Melinda Merck examines a patient for hints of neglect or abuse. The lions share of practitioners will encounter abuse/neglect cases each year, but few metrics exist to determine an animals level of care.
"That was the first case I had where the history didn't match the symptoms, and it made me suspicious," says Dr. Melinda Merck, owner of The Cat Clinic of Roswell in Georgia.

The recent graduate reported the case as abuse to the authorities, but the owner skipped town. In the meantime, Merck realized that an abysmal lack of resources helped prohibit general practitioners from recognizing non-accidental injuries or abuse.

Taking matters into her own hands, she contacted her local medical examiner to learn the human side of forensics. From that point on, whenever there was a homicide, Merck would trudge down to the morgue to observe the grim details of forensic medical examinations. She read extensively on the subject and translated what she learned to the animal world.

Demand for forensic information is on the rise as more states require veterinarians to report suspicions of animal abuse. General practitioners increasingly are required to have adequate training in recognizing abuse, reporting it to proper authorities and conducting evaluations that will hold up in court.

Table 1: Patterns on Non-Accidental Injury
Animal cruelty now carries a felony sentence in 41 states and the District of Columbia, according to the American Humane Association. Though many of the proposed statewide abuse-reporting requirements shield veterinarians from criminal or civil prosecution, compliance can be difficult.

Issues with reporting suspected abuse or cruelty A study published in the 1999 Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) indicated that 78.9 percent of veterinarians surveyed had seen at least one case of animal abuse in their practices. Although the majority of survey respondents agreed that veterinarians have an ethical responsibility to report suspicions of abuse, less than half felt the responsibility should be mandated by law (Donley, Patronek, & Luke, 1999).

"We can't keep turning a blind eye to this, especially when the statistics are so startling about how animal abuse is linked to other crimes," Merck says.

She is not alone.

"Violence is violence," explains Dr. Annette Rauch at the Tufts' Center for Animals and Public Policy. "People who deal with their frustrations in life through violence do so very indiscriminately."

Two issues might be swaying veterinarians from reporting suspected abuse. One is simply inherent in the profession itself.

"We're in a feel-good profession," Merck says. "We want to think the human-animal bond is there for anybody who walks in our practice."

The other issue is fear of retaliation.

"I think veterinarians are not aware that they're protected from civil and criminal liability," she says, referring to the immunity clauses in many states that protect a veterinarian who reports abuse in good faith.