The Veterinarian's role in Domestic Violence

What's a veterinarian got to do with domestic violence? "A lot" according to an increasing number of veterinary bodies who are making it mandatory for veterinarians to report cases of suspected animal abuse.

Research from Monash University (Australia) entitled “The Relationship between Family Violence and Animal Abuse: An Australian Study” supports the view that there's a link between domestic violence and animal abuse. The research is due to be published later in 2008. (1)

Researchers interviewed 102 women with a history of family violence, recruited through the Eastern Domestic Violence Outreach Centre, and compared results with a control group of 102 women which had no history of violence.

Co-author and psychology department associate professor Eleonora Gullone said that actual or threatened harm to pets was one of the ways abusive partners kept women in relationships.

"One of the concerns is that women stay in the violent situation longer, endangering themselves and their children, because they are afraid to leave the pets," Dr Gullone said.

The study found that:

• 53% of women in violent relationships reported their pets had also been abused. By comparison, only 6% of the sample group had pets who were harmed, and in most of those cases the harm was accidental.

• 33% of women had delayed leaving the relationship by up to eight weeks out of concern for the welfare of their pets.

• Pets were killed in 17% of households where there is family violence, including fish, birds and farm animals. In some instances, multiple pets were killed. By comparison, no pets had been killed in the control group.

• In 29% of cases, Children were witness to the abuse. According to Dr Gullone, this in turn lead to concerns that they had an increased likelihood of growing up to be abusive adults because of the proven links between witnessing abuse and engaging in it.

The research parallels similar findings in other legal jurisdictions.

It seems obvious to many, that veterinarians potentially have a key role in this issue, with the ability to take an active part in protecting the victims – animal and humans alike. In the ethics guideline of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (UK), this role is stated as “Veterinary surgeons are one of a number of professionals who may see and hear things during the course of their professional activity which arouse suspicion of animal abuse and/or domestic violence and child abuse. Increasingly domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse are seen to be linked and efforts are being made to raise awareness within the veterinary profession.” It then proceeds to outline the ethical duty that applies to every veterinary surgeon registered with the Royal College in the event the veterinarian suspects what is known as a “non accidental injury”. Importantly, the veterinarian does not need to affirmatively diagnose a non accidental injury, nor does the veterinarian need to be trained as a social expert – the vet merely has to SUSPECT a non accidental injury, for the duty to be activated.

With increasing public attention to issues of animal welfare, and questions about the role of the veterinarian, it is interesting to compare and contrast the participation of veterinary bodies around the world to this issue. A leadership role has been taken by veterinary bodies in Canada and the USA by making it a mandatory legal duty for veterinarians to report suspected cases of animal abuse. Members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in the UK have an ethical (not legal) duty to report cases of suspected abuse. In several European states, Australia, New Zealand, and other jurisdictions where one might reasonably expect the veterinary body to be actively involved in this issue – particularly given the existence of modern animal welfare law in their legal jurisdiction – there are significantly fewer prescribed duties for their veterinarians. In New Zealand, for example, the Rural News (3) published an article where the opening words were “Vets and animal welfare specialists in New Zealand are not convinced of the merits of forcing vets to report violence against, and abuse of, animals”. Undoubtedly the professional attitude of whether the veterinarians see themselves as either protectors or whistle-blowers, is just one of several potential barriers that would require attention – but its not a barrier that has stopped veterinary bodies in England, Canada and the United States from recognising the need to have stated duties and procedures regarding this issue for their veterinarians.

Veterinarians are professionally trained in animal husbandry and recognition of substandard care. Early, effective identification and intervention is critical to protect the animal and human victims, because the abuse may be an indicator of other violence that is occurring. Lessons from the human field show that reporting suspected abuse is a vital component of an effective response.

Studies from around the world consistently confirm that veterinarians see animals where abuse is suspected, so the next logical question asks what happens AFTER the veterinarian sees an animal where there is suspected animal abuse? What procedures are in place for the veterinarian? What expertise is available to the veterinarian, and the victims? Importantly, how many of the veterinarians who see suspected “non accidental injuries”, actually report it? A survey of Michigan veterinarians revealed that 88% felt they had seen non-accidental injuries in their patients - but only 27% had ever filed a report. (4) Like all other professions, veterinarians may vary in their abilities, confidence, and concerns in respect of this issue. Furthermore, there may also be direct conflicts of interest. It would seem logical that the findings in the USA would apply to all veterinarians – whatever legal jurisdiction they are in. Non-reporting has obvious, sinister, and potentially lethal implications for the victims in view of the fact that they are likely to be returned to the abusive environment.

Director of International Animal-Law, Dr Ian Robertson, has been strongly in favour of mandating a legal duty on veterinary professionals to report suspected animal abuse. With his background as a trained lawyer, combined with his practical perspectives as a veterinarian, Dr Robertson sees significant advantages for the veterinarian in legally mandating a duty to report suspected animal abuse. In a conference presentation held at Oxford (England) Dr Robertson quoted Professor Bernard Rollin who has said that a legal duty to report suspected abuse "assists the veterinarian by removing any moral dilemma about whether to report or not."

In addition to assisting, or compelling where necessary, veterinarians to be involved, a legal duty arguably has some very practical, and very obvious, advantages for the victims – animals and humans alike.

In making it mandatory for veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse, some veterinary bodies have been pro-active in their recognition of the fact that the veterinarian has a key role in the issue of what’s known as “the link” between animal abuse and domestic violence.

1. Media Release: The Age
2. Website of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
3. The Rural News (New Zealand)
4. Stolt 1997, J Am Vet Med Assoc 1997;211:1521-1523.

Article added: 04/2008