AVMA animal welfare expert discusses abuse reporting

Animal abuse reporting by veterinarians was the subject of national headlines in late October after an incident in Wisconsin where a woman allegedly killed her boyfriend’s dog.

The dog had previously been treated for traumatic injuries at a veterinary hospital, raising questions about whether the earlier suspected abuse had been properly reported.

Following the woman’s arrest, the news media seized on the fact that Wisconsin and 38 other states currently do not require veterinarians to report suspected abuse, which has been a highly discussed issue within the veterinary community for years.

With that story still circulating around the nation, NEWStat decided to explore the complexity of animal abuse reporting and find out what the AVMA is working on to address the issue.

Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD, animal welfare scientist for the Animal Welfare Division of the AVMA, took time to answer our questions, along with Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA director of state legislative and regulatory affairs.

Why is abuse reporting such a complex issue?

According to Patterson-Kane, multiple surveys have shown that on average, most veterinarians see cases of possible abuse at least once a year. Because it happens relatively infrequently, veterinarians are not as likely to put substantial thought into how to best handle the situation.

When veterinarians are confronted with cases of possible abuse, Patterson-Kane said sometimes their minds are flooded with questions such as:

  • Who is the right person to contact about this?
  • What kind of documentation will I need?
  • Am I correct that this is abuse?
  • Can I be sued for defamation if I’m mistaken about it being abuse?
  • Will the authorities even do anything about my report?
  • What’s going to happen next?

While fretting over these questions, Patterson-Kane said many veterinarians likely go through the following thought process: “I think that might be abuse, but I’m not sure. I can’t prove it, I’m not sure what I’m going to do, and I’ve got eight more cases today, and I’m just going to go home and feel worried about it, but I’m not really going to do anything.”

That stress can overwhelm veterinarians and lead them to remain silent, “which is where I think a lot of people end up,” Patterson-Kane said.

What is the current state of reporting laws?

Currently, there are 39 states that do not require reporting. Other states encourage reporting or at least offer civil immunity for good faith reporting by veterinarians, according to the AVMA's list of state requirements

While there is a steady push by animal welfare groups for other states to adopt mandatory reporting laws, the legislative front has been fairly quiet when it comes to reporting legislation, according to Hochstadt.

Hochstadt told NEWStat he didn’t see much in the way of proposed reporting laws while monitoring the 2012 legislative session.

Is there evidence about the effectiveness of mandatory reporting?

Patterson-Kane said there isn’t enough data to determine whether or not mandatory reporting is an effective measure.

“We just haven’t gotten to the point where we think we’re sure that mandating reporting is going to work yet. It may, it may not,” she said. “We haven’t noticed, for example, that in places where it’s mandated you see more reporting than where it’s not. So to some extent it could make the whole thing more scary when we’re trying to make it more comfortable.”

How can the reporting system be improved?

Part of the AVMA’s approach to abuse reporting has been to issue a statement saying that reporting is the responsibility of veterinarians whether or not it is mandated by law. The association also published an in-depth document titled “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect,” which veterinarians can use as a reference when dealing with possible abuse.

In addition, the organization is actively seeking ways to prepare and educate veterinarians so they will feel more confident and comfortable about reporting suspected abuse, according to Patterson-Kane.

According to Patterson-Kane, the AVMA’s efforts over coming years include:

Encouraging veterinarians to gain familiarity with local policies - As Patterson-Kane pointed out, reporting is handled on a state-by-state and even jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, which means veterinarians have to be familiar with their own state’s rules.

They should know vital information such as to whom they should report the case, what documentation they need to provide, how long they need to wait before providing client records (usually until a court subpoena is produced), and whether their state offers immunity for reporting veterinarians.

This information should be built into a protocol in each veterinary practice so that when an incident arises, the practice’s veterinarians, technicians, and owners are all on the same page and are prepared to respond promptly and effectively.

Getting veterinarians to establish reporting relationships - Not only should veterinarians know exactly which local agency to call for abuse reporting, but they should give that agency a call before even encountering potential abuse, Patterson-Kane said. That step can increase animal abuse awareness for the reporting agency, as well as set the stage for a more collaborative relationship in the future.

“Whoever your reporting agency is, you should have an identified person there that you can just call up and say, ‘Look, I don’t know if I need to report this or not, but this is what I saw,’ and then they can tell you what you should do,” she said. “And just making this call is not reporting; making the call is consulting. And then between you, you can decide if this is reportable.”

She said she has found in her own experience that some reporting agencies are easier to contact than others. But she still encourages all veterinarians to make the call proactively, because she said, “The fact is if we don’t make the calls, they won’t develop the capacity to respond to them.”

If veterinarians can’t make contact with the right party or agency, or if the party is unreceptive, Patterson-Kane encouraged them to contact their state veterinary association, or the AVMA if needed. She said veterinarians can help to identify places where the reporting system is broken, which is useful for finding ways to fix it.

“At least we try and use these systems - if we don’t identify where they’re functioning, we can’t put our lobbying and our pressure in the right place,” she said. “So at the moment we’re just pushing the veterinarian to push the system and to tell us what happens.”

Educating veterinarians on best practices for reporting - Finding a way to educate the AVMA’s 85,000 geographically dispersed and very busy members is a big challenge, Patterson-Kane said. Complicating matters even further is the fact that veterinarians in different states have to play by different rules when it comes to reporting.

To tackle this challenge, the AVMA is also looking the logistics and effectiveness of various forms of education, whether it’s through webinars, recommended books, continuing education (CE), or other avenues, Patterson-Kane said.

She said that because not every veterinarian would be able to attend a CE course on topics related to abuse such as forensics, one person at a large clinic could take the course and then inform his or her co-workers.

AVMA goal for 2013 and beyond: Get veterinarians comfortable with reporting

Animal abuse reporting will continue to be addressed in the courts, but Patterson-Kane said a necessary step is educating veterinarians so they feel more comfortable putting themselves out there to report abuse.

“We need to build that confidence, that feeling that this is exactly what you should do and this is what’s going to happen, and although this is not going to be a fun or pleasant experience, it’s not going to be that bad,” she said.

Read the AAHA position statement on animal abuse reporting

NEWStat Legislation & regulation