Legislators in New York (Asw. Linda Rosenthal) and Maryland (Del. Tony McConkey) have recently introduced bills that would require veterinarians to report suspected animal cruelty to government officials. If these bills are adopted, New York and Maryland would mandate rather than permit the voluntary reporting of animal cruelty, which is already an ethical if not legal responsibility of veterinarians.
However, like most other animal-related issues, such reporting is not without controversy or potential liability to reporting professionals.
First, most states prohibit veterinarians from releasing the medical and other records of their clients and patients to anyone unless certain specific exceptions exist. For example, in New Jersey:
A licensed veterinarian shall keep records confidential, unless:
1) The licensed veterinarian is required by law to release the records;
2) The Board requests the records;
3) The client, at the time services were rendered by the licensed veterinarian, authorizes the licensed veterinarian to release the records; or
4) It becomes necessary to release information in the records in order to protect the health of a person, the animal that is the subject of the records or another animal.
Veterinarians may be hesitant to report suspected animal cruelty if such reporting is not expressly exempt from other governing laws.
Second, legal definitions of “animal cruelty” vary among the states. Limited guidance exists to help veterinarians navigate this issue. In the” Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect” the authors address these concerns:
In common usage, the terms “cruelty to animals,” “abuse,” and “neglect” encompass a range of behaviors harmful to animals, from unintentional neglect to malicious killing, and it is difficult to arrange these commissions and omissions along a scale of acceptability in a variety of cultures.
The legal definitions of the following terms (and even the legal definition of “animal”) vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and clinical descriptions and public perceptions may vary from statutory terminology: [animal cruelty, neglect, animal abuse, animal physical abuse, non-accidental injury, animal sexual abuse, hoarding, fabricated or induced illness, emotional abuse.]
Third (and most importantly) veterinarians are not commonly trained in methods to identify cruelty, abuse or neglect. As reported by the AVMA in 2001, Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine acknowledged deficiencies in educating veterinarians:
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.
Since that time, there have been advances in the field of veterinary forensic medicine, but more has to be done before finding veterinarians legally responsible if they do not recognize signs of animal cruelty, abuse or neglect.
The AVMA recognizes that veterinarians may observe cases of animal abuse or neglect as defined by federal or state laws, or local ordinances. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities, whether or not reporting is mandated by law. Prompt disclosure of abuse is necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people. Veterinarians should be aware that accurate, timely record keeping and documentation of these cases are essential. The AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to educate clients regarding humane care and treatment of animals.
Additional guidance for the profession is needed to assist veterinarians to identify and report suspected cases of animal cruelty.