Oxford conference on animal abuse and domestic violence

The following article regarding Dr Robertson's presentation at Oxford regarding a mandatory duty to report suspected animal abuse was published in The Veterinary Record.

SHOULD it be mandatory for veterinary surgeons to report suspicions of animal abuse to the authorities? This was one of the questions to arise from a one-day conference on the relationship between animal abuse and human violence, held in Oxford in September. According to Dr Ian Robertson, an animal law expert at the University of Leeds, making the reporting of animal abuse mandatory would remove any moral dilemmas caused by the existing ethical duty on vets.

Dr Robertson says that mandatory reporting is not something that veterinary surgeons in the UK can be ambushed into" because Annex 3 of the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct already places an ethical duty on them.

"It's not a question of should we have a duty to report as the reality is that there is already a duty. But making it mandatory would remove the moral dilemma for practising vets." Also, because a clear link between animal abuse and human violence has been identified, it would prevent many cases of domestic violence, he says. But he believes veterinary surgeons must be skilled in identifying what is accident, disease or abuse before laws like the Animal Welfare Act can be properly enforced.

"An efficient and effective system of identifying and reporting animal abuse cases is pivotal to enforcing the Animal Welfare Act," he says. "In spite of the fact that the ethical duty already exists, there is not a central consensus or consistency in the training of veterinary undergraduates. It is not a requirement in the undergraduate curriculum to include units on this issue and it is left up to the individual decision makers in the veterinary schools.

"There is no assessment of competency in this subject, but when veterinary undergraduates register with the Royal College this becomes part of their duty."

And postgraduate training in the subject is not "sexy" enough or "sufficiently equated with financial reward" to attract students, he believes. "My opinion is that if a mandatory duty is put in place, then that automatically would instigate research and address issues of training on an undergraduate and postgraduate level, making the profession look at the systems in place.

"At the moment the ethical duty leaves it largely up to the vets to decide if they should or shouldn’t report. But the reality is that they are trained in animal health not social science."

Dr Robertson is both a qualified veterinary surgeon and a barrister who teaches animal law. He ran a group of five successful mixed veterinary surgeries in New Zealand until a concurrent career as a media personality and TV vet sparked his interest in animal law. "At the moment the ethical duty leaves it largely up to the vets to decide if they should or shouldn’t report. But the reality is that they are trained in animal health not social science

He has published books and lectured around the world, as well as designing animal law courses for law schools and veterinary schools.

He says veterinary surgeons who identify a case of animal abuse would not be required to do research into the family to "see if the wife has been beaten or if the children are fed". It is up to adjudicators to decide if an instance of suspected animal abuse actually warrants the involvement of other agencies.

"He’s looking at the animal and if something is suspicious of a non-accidental injury, rather than having to go through many hoops and make subjective judgements that may or may not be accurate, or may or may not be appropriate given that there may be potential conflicts of interest, there is a simple bar that says: "I suspect this and consequently I have a duty to report."" That makes it a lot simpler for the veterinarian and there are skilled people to take it over from there."

Client Confidentiality

He believes that concerns of client confidentiality are important, but the nature of the profession requires veterinary surgeons to consider the animal first: "It is not to be done lightly or frivolously, but animal care trumps client confidentiality."

Before implementation, Dr Robertson says there would need to be an assessment of the barriers to veterinary surgeons fulfilling a mandatory duty to report animal abuse and a lot of research. This would include assessing what other jurisdictions are doing in this field.

In a paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association Sarah Babcock and April Neihsl listed eight states in the USA that legally require veterinary surgeons to report animal cruelty, and 21 that have legislation supplying immunity from civil or criminal liability arising from reporting such cases.

They wrote: "Veterinarians are concerned that reporting animal cruelty will have an impact on their practice and business. Requiring all veterinarians in the state to report animal cruelty will help level the playing field. In addition, other professions that have similar reporting requirements have not experienced a negative impact on their professional relationships."

Dr Robertson says: "If there is a move toward this in other jurisdictions, then in Britain it is appropriate that we at least look at this as a potential for helping vets fulfil their duty. We have a restructured legislation [the Animal Welfare Act] that gives duties and powers, but you cannot implement enforcement without identification and efficient reporting and that is where the veterinary profession has a unique role."

And he believes registered veterinary nurses should also be seen as veterinary professionals capable of carefully assessing cases for signs of animal abuse.

The RCVS President, Dr Bob Moore, says he feels there is no need to make reporting mandatory: "There is provision in the Guide to Professional Conduct for veterinary surgeons who suspect a case of animal abuse to breach client confidentiality and report the matter to the relevant authorities.

"This is an ethical rather than a legal responsibility, but veterinary surgeons are trusted to use their professional judgement every day, often with respect to issues of law, and this should be no different."

But Dr Robertson says that stating trust in the veterinary profession is not enough: "Nobody is saying we can’t trust vets. We just want to make it easier for them."

The Veterinary Record. Volume 161 Number 25 December 22/29 Page 836

Article added: 11/2008